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The Power of Paper in Business Communications

Confucius was wrong – it is good to live in interesting times

I’m deep-diving into a number of projects at work, while juggling a sudden surge in business travel (the majority of my tweets of late). All of the work involves significant change – different tools & process, or reworking process “traditions” that have ossified over multiple years and a succession of owners. I have developed a stack of notes on a range of topics – excellent blog fodder regarding requirements gathering, knowledge capture, resistance to change, etc. All will come out in series, but I’ve got to dedicate a few paragraphs to some foundational topics. These may sound mundane, but I beg your patience – they will establish elements of communication style that act as subtle yet powerful levers in capturing the knowledge, improving the process, and making the changes happen.

The first item on my list has it’s roots in Zig Ziglar and classic sales techniques: the Power of Paper. I found an article on that summarizes it nicely (added emphasis is mine)…

There’s something convincing about hard copies. When something is printed out, it lends substantially more validity to a subject than just the spoken word.  Nowhere is this more true than when you’re in the heat of battle.  That is, when you’re at the dealership negotiating the price for your new set of wheels. Rather than just tell the salesman … that Edmunds’ [price] is, for example, $26,393, show them a printout from when you priced out the car.  That way, they know you’re not just throwing out numbers.  And let’s face it, Edmunds is pretty well recognized so it’s not like they won’t know what you’re referring to.

For some reason, paper bestows a tangible authenticity that has an impact on the conversation. Of course, the Edmunds brand-name certainly bestows additional legitimacy of the printout; it’s not enough to print off an e-mail or start up your word processor and type out a few paragraphs on a blank sheet of paper. Give your paper deliverables some look/feel legitimacy by using all those features that Microsoft / Open Office developers so kindly provided – page headers, footers, multiple fonts, etc. As a concrete example, I have posted my “white paper” document template (available here); it has been refined over the years, and has a number of formatting and content details that present clean, professional looking deliverables suitable for any general topic. I’ve also used this as a base for more complex templates – project proposals, requirements gathering, RFPs, and management presentations.

So what are these “details”? Let me lay out a few Concepts for effective documents, and detail how the template makes it real:

Concept 1
: Why take two pages if you can fit into one?

In Practice: Page layout details (such as margins set to a half inch all-around). Paragraph styles that add three or six points before each paragraph or section header (instead of extra carriage returns).

Concept 2
: Pages are meant to be printed – the physical page is important.

In Practice: Make the left margin 0.75 inches – we’re adding space for a three-hole punch. Print the page number and total pages on each page – when folks are shuffling the stack, they will know when pages are missing. Print the Last Updated date on each page; this serves as an effective version indicator.

Concept 3
: Printed and/or electronic deliverables often contain intellectual property or other information that should be kept confidential

In Practice: Many folks place the corporate logo prominently in the header or footer of every page – this is usually a waste of toner and space (we all know what company we work for – why waste the white space? I prefer the watermark – it’s subtler, yet clearly stands every page – a classy touch (see also Concept 4). Plus, the page footer should say something along the lines of “Proprietary and Confidential”. NB: Every page is key – just putting logos and confidentiality notices on a cover page isn’t enough.

Concept 4
: It’s better to look good than to be good.

In Practice: Well, you do need good content – but a polished look definitely adds to the air of legitimacy. This is the biggest reason for the header, footer, and watermark on every page. Also, a Table of Contents is recommended for deliverables that have more than three pages. Note that the template sets the TofC at the top of the first page, but doesn’t necessarily add a page break. Who needs the added whitespace?

Concept 5
: Templates can facilitate better content while they support a standard (and polished) look.

In Practice: Good document templates are self-documenting – they feature instructions and best-practice notes within the template itself. Templates for specific types of documents (say, RFPs) will contain a table of contents and a “shell” of empty sections that capture the most effective way to present the information. You can also add stock text for common passages; for example, I’ve written about effective outlines for project proposals. The template for these proposals is actually many pages long, because it’s filled with sample text, such as a list of common project risks or assumptions.

Of course I’m always looking for ways to improve my templates – so any feedback is welcome!

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