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The write stuff

The write stuff

IT vendors love to serve up white papers about their strange-sounding wares. Here is a look at the intricate craft of writing such masterpieces.

Over the past few months I have been engaged in the writing of a white paper for a significant IT vendor - work I undertake from time to time in order to keep the kids shod and my appreciation of the ridiculousness of corporate life keen. So in case you have ever wondered what goes into one of these documents before they land in your inbox with their promise of white-hot transformational insights, here's how they come into being. It starts, as do so many things these days, with an email from an old colleague who remembers that I write for a living and am capable of spelling HTML. That achievement is generally accepted as meaning that as a writer I can churn out anything from a 1000-page technical critique of Intel's latest chip to a passable sequel to Hamlet.

A white paper, it is therefore assumed, will be a doddle, even if my experience on the topic is something I have never actually experienced other than through magazine articles or other vendors' white papers. I should also mention that I am cheap: a writer in Australia costs about as much as a call centre operator in Bangalore. That goes a long way towards explaining why vendors from Brazil to Berlin ask for an Australian to articulate their strategy in order to expand their clients' world view and loosen their purse strings.

To achieve either outcome, conference calls at strange hours are a necessity. We start by chatting to a European subject matter expert whose English is generally excellent, but becomes sublime when uttering the most excruciating marketing doggerel.

Buzzwords are soon flying like hordes of professionally provoked bees and geometry is taken beyond the Newtonian in attempts to explain just how the vendor employs prisms, matrices and conic sections to develop their product. My attempts to draw out the source of this stuff so that it can be verified, rarefied or accorded any credible origin are futile: Google or rival vendors' websites are offered as sources.

I am also foolish enough to ask whether readers will consider that the hyper-optimised, next-generation, fluid "language 2.0" I am being asked to use is natural, convincing or original. This is met with a response that some of the terms mentioned are important differentiators and should be retained.

Thin on the ground

The result is a first draft in which original insights, arguments or even phrases are thin on the ground. References to improving return on investment, helping IT departments do more with less, or installation and customisation routines that are so simple as to be almost numinous grace every paragraph. All are backed by hard ... assertions, or if those are not available, analyst reports of embarrassing vintage are pressed into service.

The resultant conference call to review the draft is staged at an even more inconvenient hour, as a new level of global management and subject matter expertise has since been engaged to review the work in progress. These scions like the approach, want more optimisation to be included and have more to say on the subject of ROI. Several people weigh in with small suggestions and it is later revealed that these come from regional and/or national outposts of the vendor and must be accommodated, even though they are at odds with the ordered theme.

At this point one of three things happen. The best outcome is that my contact asserts some authority and signs off the thing. The worst is that someone higher up the food chain than my contact shuttles off the thing to their expensive American advertising agency, which brings it back on message and erases my contribution from living memory.

The most comfortable and usual outcome is a weird global detente in which the worst excesses are gently excised in the name of corporate standards, countries that have met their last annual sales targets get their own paragraph and my contact fights to keep the bits he really likes because he, after all, initiated the project and should have some say in what gets written.

Then, I imagine, these documents are pushed towards your inbox in the hope that they can induce you to commit acts of commerce. I have no idea if they do, but I watch my own bank account quite closely to ensure that the exotic currency I've been dealing in appears on time. Once that has happened I forget about the white paper until I get an email from an old colleague asking if I still write for a living, and do I know anything about what their company does.

"Sure," I reply, frantically opening the final draft of the last one I worked on. "I've done quite a bit of work in that field."

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