Lessons from FBI Negotiators

It’s been more than 15 years since my first attempt at writing a white paper, and I couldn’t tell you how many I’ve written since then. When I think back on my experiences in general, however, one thing I often find striking is how differently clients treat the writing and editing process.  

I’ve seen some drafts churn for weeks while a client wrestled with strategy and messaging, and I’ve seen plenty of drafts go straight to layout.

Straight to layout might sound nice. But in most situations—skipping built-in edit rounds is a bad idea.

In this post, I’ll explain why and also provide some perspective on how you can use the editing process to maximize the quality and impact of your white papers.

Beware reviewer and writer overload

In his book Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It, Chris Voss, a former FBI negotiator talks about how the FBI uses teams of several people to listen when hostage takers talk. They never leave the job to one person. Individuals are naturally distracted and engage in selective listening. They often miss subtle cues a hostage taker may be broadcasting.

White paper reviewers face a similar type of challenge. As they review, they need to make sure that a paper:

  • Offers some sort of value in the form of a new perspective or better approach
  • Carries the reader along with a logical structure and flow
  • Conveys your key messages clearly and succinctly
  • Aligns with your brand and style guidelines

That’s a lot to accomplish in one read, let alone three. Keep in mind that your writer is also doing a lot of heavy lifting in the outline and initial draft, including:  

  •  Synthesizing all of the information you and your SMEs share with them
  • Organizing a compelling argument or business case
  • Providing a draft that’s relatable to executives who are immersed in the topic at hand.

Given all of the considerations at play for both writers and reviewers, it’s easy to understand why there is almost always room for improvement—even when you think your writer nailed a draft.

3 tips for better drafts

Fortunately, unlike a hostage situation, white paper readability is in no way life altering. But we do owe it to time-crunched readers (and our brands) to make every effort to ensure the best possible reading experience. Given all of the messaging and style-related considerations for a white paper, your best bet for ensuring that experience is through a structured review process.

Best of all, if you are deliberate with your approach, and follow these three tips, it’s not that hard:

  • Go the full number of revision rounds—While you may need more than three rounds of revisions for a white paper, it’s rarely a good idea to use fewer. You will notice different things each time you revisit the paper. 
  • Set a review objective for each round—For the first few reviews, choose one or two tasks to focus on. For example, for the outline emphasize structure and messaging feedback. For the first draft, readability and persuasiveness (pay close attention to the effective use of stats). For the second draft, look for opportunities to cut copy and add new graphics. For the third, button up any remaining style and grammar-related issues.  
  • Involve important stakeholders early and often—Make sure the schedule includes enough time for all of your key stakeholders to weigh in. You don’t want to get through several drafts and then have an important stakeholder jump in and ask to take the paper in a completely different direction.    

Final thoughts

There may be times when you are on a tight timeline and you simply need to run with a first or second draft. But in most cases, the payoff from a staggered and deliberate review process will pay off in the form of a more readable and compelling white paper. Especially if you’re working with a specialist who delivered a rock-solid first draft that only gets better from there. 

Need more effective white papers? Find out how my process leads to strong results.