Images as Bricks, Text as Mortar – A New Model for White Papers?

By John White

White papers are meant to persuade and inform. What if you did all of your persuading with images and all of your informing with text?

Last week a freelance writer turning her attention to the world of white papers asked:

How important are graphics and diagrams to a white paper? I’m not very good at creating these. Do you think I should check out a few online tutorials on MS Word to learn how to use all those tables and charts?

I think about this a lot. A white paper without diagrams is silly, bordering on the oppressive.

It’s like children’s literature without pictures. In fact, it is children’s literature without pictures, because you run the risk of losing your readers to the demon of the abbreviated attention span.

I suppose that a real genius could tell the entire story with diagrams and use the text as filler. Most of us are not that good, but we realize that diagrams break up the text and make it easy on the reader, and we’re all in the business of making it easy on the reader.

Turning the White Paper Model on Its Head

Whether you’re a marketing manager responsible for providing images to your writer, or a writer responsible for delivering a decent read, diagrams count.

In fact, given that the intent of a white paper is to persuade and inform, consider using images to persuade and narrative text to inform. If writing a white paper is like building a wall, the prevailing wisdom is to use the text as the bricks and to use diagrams as mortar, holding the text together and supporting it.

On your next paper, make the diagrams work as the bricks. See how much of the story you can tell with images:

  • applications of your technology
  • quantified results from your customers in a chart
  • photos of your product in action
  • maps with statistics
  • flowcharts before and after your product is in place

Then use text as the mortar that binds each image to the next in transition.

You could turn the white paper model on its head, yet still persuade and inform readers.

Have you seen examples of this? Do you think you could pull it off?

John White of venTAJA Marketing posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s dirty work, but somebody has to do it.

photocredit: Elsie esq.

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  • Markus

    Although it is obviously clear, pictures have a certain meaning. I saw a lot of marketing material where pictures are included and did not belong to the story. Many marketing guys add pictures just to have pictures (i.e. adding a picture of towers when you explain the internal structure). Please keep pictures and text in sync.

  • Apryl Parcher

    Great article, John!

    It's becoming more and more important to capture imagination with graphic elements–especially now that mobile technology is shrinking the size of our view screens.

    What do you think about embedding short video elements in white papers?

  • John White

    Apryl: I like the idea. Better let the reader know about it at download time, though, lest she print it out to read on a plane and end up missing an important piece of the story.

  • Rachel

    I doubt anyone will rule out the use of graphics in white papers — as long as each image serves its complementary role effectively. Unfortunately, I've seen too many images designed to impress. They may look pretty, but in my opinion, they take attention away from the text rather than add real value. With a trend toward shorter white papers, poorly designed graphics might just be fluff that takes up precious space.

    Having said that, as an economist, I do like graphs, charts and fancy schematics — but use judiciously in white papers.

  • Pharmacy First

    I like that idea too. But the reader should be made aware.

  • John White

    Marcus: I see disconnects like that in thought-leadership papers from high-end consulting firms, when there's nothing much to depict. They figure – and there's an argument for it – that any picture is better than four straight pages of text. It's easy to avoid that in a technical-benefits paper, where you have tables, graphs, flowcharts, etc. to support the narrative.

  • John White

    Rachel: That's what I mean – suppose you figured out a way to make the graphics the star of the white paper, and the text plays only a supporting role. You could save a thousand words, maybe more.

  • Bora

    Thanks for the great article John!
    I agree that the the graphics should be the start of the white paper. As they say “A picture is worth a thousand words”

  • Quit Smoking Now

    Thanks for the great article John!
    I agree that the the graphics should be the start of the white paper. As they say “A picture is worth a thousand words”