By Kevin Gault
Great writers obsess over their words, and who can blame them? Words create the messages that make readers buy. But it’s a mistake to ignore potent graphic elements such as illustrations, charts, photos and subheads. They’re powerful weapons that pack punch into your prose.
Let’s start with a question: Why use graphics? “There’s a connection between visual appeal and comprehension,” says Jonathan Kantor of The Appum Group. “We’re attracted to visually appealing and pleasing design elements, and making a white paper more visually appealing helps readers grasp important messages about products.”
Roger C. Parker, author of Design to Sell, views graphics from a slightly different angle: “Words have to be read, but visuals provide instant communication. Properly used, graphics let you add a visual element to your message. They can engage readers by visually telling a story.”
Using Graphics the Right Way
Illustrations help readers get a handle on complex information, Kantor says. He advises using them to show how a solution works. For example, use an illustration to depict a problem facing a company or industry and to show how the solution successfully addresses the problem.
Kantor says charts are for validation: “Charts are a way to authenticate statistical data and trends. Charts take a bunch of static data points and show them in a more visually appealing way or show trends within that data.”
According to Parker, photos show readers exactly what a person, place or thing looks like, but overusing them can be disastrous: “Many white papers contain large photographs of ‘typical employees’ meeting in a conference room, shaking hands, or gathered around a computer monitor. Often, these photographs are so contrived that their origin as stock photography is painfully obvious. These generic photographs are not only uselessly decorative, but—worse—they distract from the all-important messages of the white paper.”
White Space and Other Weapons
One important type of graphic isn’t a graphic at all: white space.
White space in the margins adds “air” around your message, Parker says, projecting an attractive, easy-to-read impression. Examples of effective use of white space are bulleted and numbered lists, which organize information and increase white space, which draws the reader’s attention.
Kantor says white space is prime real estate for vital call-outs: “White space is more than just a design point, it’s the best place for call-out quotes. A call-out contains the single most important point made on a page and because it fits in a white space and has nothing around it, it naturally draws reader attention. Call-outs are also one of the first things that ’skim readers’ who flip quickly through a white paper notice.”
Parker salutes subheads as the most useful tool for making a white paper easier to read: “Subheads within the text ‘advertise’ upcoming topics. You should introduce every new topic with a short, telegraphic subhead that is limited to one line and key ideas.”
You don’t hear much about the shaded text box, but Kantor urges you to use it. “For this, you put a box around a portion of text, and you give it a very light shading so it stands out from the body of the copy,” he says. “This is a great way to attract reader attention, but you must use it judiciously, usually only once in a white paper and for the single most important point in the entire paper, such as a finding from a research study that validates a key point.”
Graphics can energize your white paper, but overuse them and your paper becomes a mess. “Because they are so easily added, graphics can add clutter and distractions that interfere with your white paper’s ability to communicate your message,” Parker says. “Before adding any graphic, ask yourself, ‘How will this graphic enhance the communicating power of my white paper?’”
Listen to the experts: Use illustrations to convey complex information clearly, use charts to make statistics more appealing, and use photos sparingly. Realize the awesome power of white space and the shaded text box, and there’s no substitute for subheads. Follow these guidelines to give your words a power surge that will electrify your readers.