In this article by Michael Stelzner, the white paper guru provides useful white paper writing tips and techniques. Stelzner says with a little forethought and careful craftsmanship, a white paper—even the most technical—can grab a reader and easily accomplish its goals.” The article provides lots of useful tips and techniques to help technical communicators create compelling white paper content and a link to a free downloadable chapter from his new book!

Why White Papers?

We in the technical writing community, especially those working for technology firms, have been well exposed to white papers.  Perhaps over-exposed.  In the last five years, what was just another piece of collateral has grown into a mega-industry.

Witness businesses spending $30,000 a quarter to promote a single white paper.  Also consider that a recent Google search for the phrase “white papers” produced more than 300 million results, up from 1 million in 2001.

The fact is that white papers have staying power.  Their importance is summed up in this simple statement: white papers help people make decisions.  Research by Bitpipe indicates that 90 percent of IT executives find white papers helpful or extremely helpful and more than half indicate white papers influence their buying decisions (February 2004).

Advice: Adopt a Soft-Sell Approach

White papers are usually written to help sell a product, service or idea.  However, unlike other sales tools, such as brochures and datasheets, white papers should avoid the hard-sell.

White papers are the longest documents in the sales arsenal. Reading them is a time-consuming process for prospects.  Thus, we need to provide readers a valid reason to stay with our documents. The first hint of “salesmanship” will trigger most people to abandon a white paper. Alternatively, if we adopt a softer sales approach, it is more likely readers will stick around. 

Leading with problems or needs faced by your readers is a great way to adopt a soft-sell approach. For example, if your company sells document management products, you might begin by talking about the challenges of managing paper contracts and incoming faxes. If readers can relate to the challenges, they will be drawn into your paper.

How to Talk About Your Solution

To avoid the impression of salesmanship, try introducing the solution generically.  For example, rather than “FedEx Express,” how about “overnight air transit”?  Talking about generic solutions is a way to educate readers.  If your product is so new or unique that a generic category does not exist, craft a new category. 

A real-world example is electronic paper.  Briefly, e-paper is a new display technology that simply produces black and white output.  Some smart folks decided to call it “e-paper” because it is very thin and does not require a constant stream of power.  Even though the technology was first developed in the 1970s, it was not until Sony introduced an e-paper reader in 2006 that the “category” has been defined as “new.”

Once you have introduced the generic solution and its benefits, you can discuss specific details about your product.

Write a Compelling Title

Titles really do matter.  In our information-overload era, relevancy is more critical than ever. 

Consider the 3-30-3 marketing rule.  The rule states that you only have 3 seconds to hook any reader.  If you tickle the interest of readers in the first 3 seconds, they will allocate another 30 seconds to read further.  If your message is very relevant and interesting, the reader will spend 3 more minutes with your white paper. 

Two hundred and thirteen seconds is what you get if you really nail it.  Unfortunately, three seconds of eye contact is all most white papers will ever see.  Thus, ultra-relevant titles are very important to draw a reader into the 30-second zone.

Tips for white paper titles

  • Use a number in the title: Numbers can be very alluring in titles and are used heavily in the world of article writing.  By saying, “Are You Prepared for Disaster? 10 Steps That Could Save Your Business,” you convey that the paper includes tangible, rapidly digestible facts.
  • Include a lively and active verb: Action words imply a benefit that can be achieved with the white paper.  Words such as “eliminating,” “growing,” “speeding” and “enhancing,” engage readers by implying achievable results.  By telling readers what’s in it for them, you lure them in.
  • Address the why: Does your title explain why readers should read your white paper?  It should.  For example, “Simple Steps to Compliance: How Advanced Tools Assure Regulatory Conformance,” is more compelling than “Addressing Regulatory Compliance Issues” because it implies the reader will learn how to do something.

The Call to Action

The result of a well-written white paper is often a persuaded reader.  However, most white papers fall short of their ultimate goal because they lack an actionable concluding suggestion—known as a call to action—that can guide the reader toward the goal.

The very last words of your white paper should ask a reader to take a well-thought-out and intentional action.  Providing a clear next step will help the reader enter into your sales cycle, provide him or her more information or accomplish just about any other task you wish.

The call must be clear, provide an advantage for acting and explicitly state how the reader should take the next step.  The possible action suggestions are many, including:

  • Scheduling an appointment
  • Visiting a website
  • Calling a sales representative
  • Offering access to special content
  • Providing a coupon or discount

Want to learn more?  These concepts are extensively discussed in the new book, “Writing White Papers: How to Capture Readers and Keep Them Engaged”. Download a free chapter from the book today.

About the author: Michael A. Stelzner belongs has written nearly 100 white papers for big names such as Microsoft, HP, SAP, FedEx and Monster, and is the founder of