Pictures and Ideas for Powerful Whitepapers

Pictures can convey messages much more powerfully than words.  In a recent discussion about writing whitepapers, I suggested combining the idea-creation advice from Made To Stick with the image-creation advice from Back of The Napkin.  Check out this article to see some concrete examples.

Made To Stick

Paul Young, product manager and author of Product Beautiful,  sent out a tweet the other day asking:

Anyone have any “best practices” for whitepaper development? E.g. most whitepapers I read are stilted, I want to make something compelling.

Tweet, on twitter


I suggested combining the ideas from Made to Stick and Back of the Napkin to create a compelling whitepaper.  Stephanie Tilton then replied with a link to a good article she wrote showing how to apply the ideas from Made to Stick to writing whitepapers.

The book, Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, written by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, has some very powerful ideas for communicating ideas.  Stephanie sums them up nicely in her article:

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Stories

Stephanie Tilton, How to Craft Whitepapers that Stick in People’s Minds

Check it out, she goes into more detail, with examples and insights about why they work.  What about the Back of the Napkin ideas?  That’s what this article covers.

Back of the Napkin

I remember feeling like I’d been hit in my frontal cortex with a frying pan at Product Camp Austin (Winter 2009), when I first saw a visualization created by Sunni Brown of Brightspot for one of the presentations.  I remembered hearing about Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures, by Dan Roam, and immediately ordered it from Amazon.  This is actually the current book for the Smarter Product Managers book club.

Applying these visualization techniques is extremely compelling for sharing ideas.

There is a ton of science behind why (and how) visual presentation of ideas (pictures) works so well.  Dan Roam does a fantastic job of making this approachable and actionable – an excellent book.

Getting back to the conversation…

How to Put Pictures in your Whitepaper

The rest of this article is showing some example images, in Back of the Napkin style, that support the ideas from Made to Stick, as you would include them in a whitepaper.

User Representatives are a Bad Idea

Imagine you’re writing a whitepaper about requirements elicitation.  There are a lot of important topics you could cover, but to stay aligned with the simple message from Made to Stick, you will want to focus on one idea (for each whitepaper, as Stephanie explains in her article).

User representatives are often offered to business analysts as a “convenient” source of requirements – the actual users are too busy, too valuable, or too easily distracted/upset/encouraged by conversations about the future.  This idea is both bad and pervasive.  You want your whitepaper to convey emotionally why this is bad.  You need something concrete, and maybe you want to tell a story.  Consider this image:


This is poorly drawn (but that’s ok!), but it establishes the metaphor that inserting user representatives into the elicitation process is like playing the telephone game.  The message (user goals) gets lost between the users and the business analyst.  It also points out that the conversation between users and analysts is what makes good requirements elication, well, good (ref. the smiley faces in the drawing if you’re not sure).

Designing for “Everyone” is a Bad Idea

One challenge for product managers is determining which features to include in their product roadmap.  Industry analysts, and sometimes buyers, have been known to use checklists to pre-screen or select products.  That may be true, but using a checklist to prioritize your product development is a bad idea, because you end up creating a product that doesn’t thrill any particular users, and just makes analysts happy.

The quick mock-up of a Consumer Reports style checklist shows a comparison of your product against the competition’s product.  With six features (A through F), it appears that your product is better.  [Here’s an article comparing elicitation techniques, with a real consumer-reports-style checklist and an explanation of how to read it.]  You have six “half-circles” which looks to be “better” than two “full circles.”  Therein lies the danger.

Any individual user cares about two or three of those features (capabilities), not all six of them.  Will that user prefer your product or the competition’s product?

That user is thrilled to use your competition’s product, because it does what that user cares about, really well.  Your product is half-baked. Happy analyst, missing user (for you).

Increasing Distribution Channels Decreases Sales

Another key idea from Made to Stick is the notion of presenting the unexpected.  The authors point out that you need to demonstrate an idea that is at odds with the reader’s concept of reality – breaking it – and then rebuild the reader’s sense of reality around your new idea.  That’s where the unexpected comes in.

Consider that you are selling a product into a crowded market, with many places that customers could buy your product.  You do your inital launch, selling through one sales channel.  Someone proposes adding other channels – hey, more is better, right?

How do you prevent this Benedict Arnold from killing your company with what looks to be a great idea?  How about getting people’s attention with this “violation of common sense”:

That will get people’s attention.  What the Heath brothers point out is that to establish credibility with this unexpected visual, you have to rebuild people’s perspective.  You could do that with the following:

Since each store (channel) has a best-sellers list, like the Billboard charts for music, you want to make sure you’re at the top of the list.  Most downloaded is a common metric for software available on shareware and freeware sites.  If people can get your product anywhere they happen to be, it will dillute your rankings at every store.  By targeting your marketing and making your product available at one store, you will get more traffic (at that store) than you otherwise would.  Then new potential customers will be more likely to discover your product because it is at the top of the list.

Climate Change

I touched on credibility in the last example.  As Stephanie points out in her article, the Made to Stick authors were talking more about data than visceral understanding.  The first thought that popped into my head was the effectiveness of Al Gore’s data in his An Inconvenient Truth book (and presentation and movie).  He demonstrates that there is a correlation (and implies that there is a causal effect) between the average temperatures on earth and carbon dioxide levels.

Pretty powerful message.


Pictures like the ones above, drawn as Dan Roam suggests in Back of the Napkin can make the ideas you present in your whitepaper really memorable.  Use the Heath brothers’ approach from Made to Stick in crafting your message, and fold it into your whitepaper as Stephanie suggests.

The result is a compelling and memorable white paper, just like Paul always wanted.

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