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Paraplanner development: Writing a white paper

5 October 2020

Paraplanners are well positioned to become involved in other aspects of the firms they work for, argues Dan Atkinson. Writing white papers is one example, being closely aligned to suitability report writing. Here he describes the process he went through as head of Technical at Paradigm Norton.

This article was first published in the October 2020 issue of Professional Paraplanner.

As paraplanners we undertake research on a regular basis. It might be due diligence on platforms, products, or a financial planning matter for clients. But have you ever taken it further? Sometimes we have opportunities to help attract new clients and raise the profile of what we do. I recently had the opportunity to research and put together a white paper for our firm.

A white paper is an authoritative document which informs readers about a potentially complex matter, your thoughts, and the actions they should be taking. It’s a natural document for a paraplanner to get involved in due to the parallels with suitability reports. I really enjoyed the experience and our clients really appreciated it.

Get an idea

Everything starts somewhere and a good place to start is by listening to what clients are asking about. We want to be relevant to the things that concern them whether we are writing for them, or a professional connection who might refer them. So, pay attention.

I picked up that we were having conversations about the risk of taxes changing and how this might impact financial plans. The cost of supporting people through the COVID-19 pandemic is going to need to be paid for at some point – potentially by raising taxes. We though it worthwhile having some substance behind our view.

Team work to explore the detail

Whilst you might think you have a great idea, that doesn’t mean that it is right to pursue it. The timing might not be right or the message might not apply to your firm’s clients. Before you go too far, talk it though with the key decision makers. Be prepared to explain:

  • What your idea is
  • What the message is
  • Why you think it is of relevance to the firm’s clients now
  • What resources are needed to make it happen
  • How you think it will benefit the business.

If you get the green light, it’s important to refine the idea. We all come at things from slightly different angles, so gather together a team to debate it. Include people from across your firm with different backgrounds and experiences to get as broad a view as possible.

For our white paper (left), I outlined a few facts to demonstrate the problem. This formed the launchpad of an open discussion which we held early in the process. Two heads are better than one, but six or seven is even better!

Focus on what is relevant

It’s easy to get stuck down a rabbit hole when researching. It’s important to be open minded, but at the same time we should have a focus to what we do. A good white paper should distil the complex into the comprehendible. Start by understanding what the focus should be for your firm’s clients – what aspects affect them and are there areas that they can take planning action? Ultimately, can you help them solve the problem? if not then your paper might be provocative but won’t be helpful.

The story for our paper was that we think taxes are likely to rise. However, there are taxes that will affect some people more than others. So, we narrowed down our focus to those which had the greatest impact on our clients and that we could help them with.

What’s the call to action?

Effective pieces of writing make the reader feel, and then do something. Be clear what it is that you want them to do. In most cases we want them to speak to our firm. It’s also helpful to be clear which people don’t need to do anything.

In our paper we wanted clients to seek advice from their planner. To help draw this in from hypothetical to personal, we talked about the broad actions we would be considering for different groups of people. We set the expectation that their planner would be in touch to have an informed discussion.

Gathering evidence

Having worked out the scope of the paper and the desired outcomes we need to start researching. Think about the sources you are using. Are they reliable, what biases might they have and are they in the public domain? Essentially, can you be fact checked!

Our approach to investing is based around looking at the evidence and having a view about whether this applies going forward. Our white paper on tax was similar; when we considered the possibility of a wealth tax, we sourced an academic paper which reviewed historic attempts. We used data from a range of sources and found the 2020 Budget and the Office of Budget Responsibility to be helpful.

It is important to look at the sources behind the commentaries we read. Sometimes the headlines miss nuances, so we invested time in reading the documents they were based on. We included references to all of our sources in the paper and have kept copies on file for future reference (and compliance).

Setting a structure

At University I learned about song writing. Popular music sticks in our head because we know what comes next based on the structure. I think that some of these techniques work well for writing white papers too.

List technique involves listing out a number of things with a final concluding point. For example, in Blue Suede Shoes, Elvis Presley lists all the things that you can do to him followed by the one thing which is forbidden. You could flip this around and go through the things that you have ruled out before focusing down on the important call to action.

The technique I used most in our paper was ‘call and response’. The section headings asked a question and I responded with our researched and reasoned answers. It sets a bit of a rhythm and helped me break down the content. When we had side points to raise, we broke out of this pattern to help highlight them.

Get on and write it

Even if your structure is just a list of the key points you want to raise (which is what I did for this article), it provides a helpful framework. You know what you need to cover and can tell if you are rambling on. It also helps ensure that each section links seamlessly into the next.

Having a structure that is broken down means that you can spread the job into more manageable parts. It’s likely that you will be fitting the writing in around other responsibilities, so this helps. You don’t have to aim for perfection the first time around. Getting something down is sufficient at the start – you can always edit.

Editing and sign off

This is where you need to bring your team back in. You’ve been immersed in your paper, so it’s important to get an objective review. They will be able to spot points that need clarifying, don’t fit in the flow or are missing.

As well as refining the details for clarity, we were able to rejig the order of a few paragraphs to make them work better. This is also the point at which our compliance team became involved for signing off the content. I’d already kept them in the loop throughout the process and they provided helpful input to ensure we were not misunderstood.

What happened next

Once we had the content agreed we involved other parts of the team to do the design work and build the delivery strategy to start sharing the white paper with our clients, prospects and professional connections. We even put together a short video summarising our findings. We also spent time briefing our planners on how best to use the document with clients. So far, the feedback from our clients has been excellent and it’s also given us the opportunity to meet new potential clients.

I really enjoyed the process and would definitely recommend it as a way to stretch yourself and develop new skills.

You can read about the white paper here. 

Professional Paraplanner