By Jonathan Kantor
Imagine that a business writer is conducting a job search for a new writing position, and she runs across an ad for the perfect job that fits her experience and career goals. But instead of sending in a traditional résumé that lists the usual items: Business Goals, Years of Service, Experience, Awards, Education, and References, she decides to send something completely different to the employer.
In this case the writer sends a multi-page story describing her writing skills that reads like a good novel. This “new résumé” talks about how well she gets along with her fellow employees. It cites specific examples where she “saved the day” for her present employer by using an innovative problem-solving approach. Most importantly, it includes a number of accolades and “attaboys” that she received from her current manager and other senior executives over the past several years. This “new résumé” format closes with a flowery dissertation about her career goals and an emotional appeal for the company to hire her.
How do you think this prospective employer will react when they receive this “new résumé” format?
You’re probably saying to yourself, “What does this have to do with white papers?” Well, a lot in fact.
Businesses Have Expectations
The example above demonstrates how a standard document format plays an important role in facilitating business communication. Business executives expect information to be presented in a uniform and consistent format. If it isn’t, false perceptions increase, business communications break down and are disrupted, resulting in disconnects with a targeted audience.
Just as business managers expect a résumé to embody certain standards, business professionals who are making expensive, critical business decisions expect a white paper to have a certain number of familiar attributes in order to be legitimately interpreted as an authentic “white paper.”
The Possible Options
Unfortunately, the business industry today lacks any formal white paper standards. This absence has left white papers open to a wide range of sizes, scopes, and formats. Today, the only thing that is required is having the name “white paper” affixed to the cover of the document.
What about size? Is a one-page document a white paper? How about two or three pages? Is there a minimum number of pages that constitute a white paper?
How about content? If a paper exclusively talks about a solution, its components, features and what each one does, is this a white paper? Does a white paper have to discuss background or business challenges first or even at all?
What about format? Does a white paper have to be just text? It is possible to create a “graphic” white paper? What percentage of text versus graphics constitutes a white paper? At what point does the inclusion of graphics turn a white paper into a brochure?
So what’s the big deal if we don’t have any white paper standards? It’s the same “deal” as our professional writer in the above example had in sending in that “new résumé.” Your business audience expects to see certain attributes in a white paper when they see that name on the cover. If it doesn’t include a certain number of anticipated components, you will send that reader to a competitor for a white paper that contains the information they need to make their critical business decisions.