Last week, I reviewed white papers posted on the White Paper Pundit to see how many had a call to action (for those who didn't read the post: only 30%). As I was going through that exercise, I noticed how varied white papers are - and how many could be improved.
One of the most surprising things I noticed that some white papers looked like term papers: Times New Roman font, default spacing, one-inch margins on all sides no graphics, etc. Many others didn't have such an academic look, but they weren't necessarily easy to read, either.
Now, you may argue that design isn't all that important with white papers - the reader is more interested in the content rather than the way it looks. I've also heard the argument that you don't want your white paper too look too "flashy" for fear people will think it is a bunch of marketing.
News flash: people consider white papers to be marketing, but if written well, they are respected because of the insights and education they provide. While white papers should be not glorified brochures, they should be readable, too.
Here's the thing: As much as you have fretted over every word, most people will be scanning your white paper, so you need to design it so someone can get the key points quickly and read more if they want. With that, here are eight suggestions to make your white papers easier to scan:
Include an executive summary
There are two trains of thought on this, but I think it's a great idea to include an executive summary in a white paper. Readers are busy, and they're looking for the takeaway quickly and easily.
Use call outs
A very common approach for white papers is to have one column that is indented on the left, leaving space for call outs on the side. Call outs can things such as snippets of text or quotes to support important points. They are a fabulous way to make key text stand out.
Think about your headers
Pay close attention to your headers and subheads and try to tell a story with them. Look at your white paper from the eyes of your reader, and skim the headers. Can the reader pick up your key points?
Highlight key points in the text
In addition to the headers, highlight key information throughout the paper. Here are just a few ideas:
- Put critical text in a box with a light color background
- Include lines above and below key text to make it stand out.
- Use bulleted lists instead of paragraphs for key points. To make bullets stand out, use something other than the traditional round or square bullet.
- Make key sentences stand out by bolding them or using a different type treatment, such as changing the color or font (of course, you want to make sure that your paper still looks professional as well).
Include graphics that tell a story
A lot of people learn with visuals. I'm not a fan of cheesy clip art, but I think graphics can add a lot to a white paper. Consider things like charts and tables or illustrations, but make sure they stand-alone (i.e. you don't need a long explanation from the text of the paper to understand it).
Experiment with different fonts
Even though Times New Roman is a standard, I don't consider it to be a particularly scannable font. Experts suggest using a serif font for the main copy and a san serif font for the header. While I understand the reasoning behind this, I can also think serif fonts can be great too. (If you are looking for new fonts to use, I like these top 10 lists of free fonts on myInkBlog.com; scroll down for links to all the fonts in the series).
Increase the spacing between lines
It's amazing what a difference a small change in line spacing can make. Try increasing the spacing between lines to see if it makes the text more scannable. (If you are unsure how to adjust line spacing and are using MS Word with Windows, go to Format > Paragraph. Under line spacing, change the selection to multiple and try values such as 1.1 or 1.2).
Design for print and screen
This is a pet peeve of mine, but I dislike reading documents that are multiple columns. I rarely print anything, and it is a pain to scroll down - and up - and down - when reading something with more than one column.
And here's another point about people reading something on screen. As I was reviewing the white papers, I was also surprised how often the white papers were not simple PDFs and instead were in other viewers. Again, just a personal preference, but I'm very comfortable with PDFs, and I don't like having to read something on an interface that is not as user-friendly.
In short, like all of your content, you need to view your white paper from the perspective of the reader. Even though you want them to read every word, many probably won't, so you need to make sure your key points are evident.
If you want to learn more, I think Jonathan Kantor, author of White Paper Pundit, has a good monthly newsletter called Short Attention Marketing Tips. If you're interested in white paper design, check it out.
What other tips do you have to make white papers easier to read?
- 3 Ways to Make Sure Prospects Find Your White Papers - By Stephanie Tilton
- A.T.T.P - Never write another piece without knowing what this is - By Wendy Thomas
- The Eyes Have It - by Heather Rubesch
Read more Savvy B2B posts from Michele.