In this tutorial, we look at how to write, review, design and improve your datasheets.
What is a Datasheet?
Definition: A data sheet is a summary of technical product. It identifies the core features, specifications, and other criteria that the reader will need to understand.
If this is your first time writing a data sheet, make sure you understand the purpose of datasheets before you sit down to write.
Remember that a data sheet is not a sales document. It’s not a pitch. It’s not an attempt to persuade the reader try your product — without giving them all the information they need. It’s the opposite.
The purpose of a datasheet is to give your readers the information they need to decide if this is the type of product that might work for them.
This means that you have to be clear on your target reader, and what they will do with this document. If not, you are likely to head off on the wrong tangent and write a different type of document, for example, a fact sheet or a technical brochure.
So, we need to be exact, accurate, concise, and avoid sales talk.
What’s the purpose of datasheets?
Data sheets are part of your software development product documentation, typically, the most technical part.
Unlike technical specifications, brochures, and getting started guides, they provide a bare bones description of the product, usually from a technical angle. Think of it as a snap shot of the product. No hype. This is what it does.
Why do people read datasheets?
First, they don’t actually read them in the sense that they may not read each line super carefully.
Instead, they probably skim the datasheet looking for certain keywords, typically features they’re looking for in your product.
When writing the data sheet, ask yourself: does my product have this feature?
If so, weave it into the document. Include different variations of the word or phrase, too.
How to Structure your Data Sheet
Here are some tips on creating a datasheet for easy skimming and scanning:
#1 Prioritize Key Features
You don’t need to, and shouldn’t, include every features in the data sheet.
Instead, identify the most important ones and use those as the foundation for the document. Remember, the data sheet should align with your sales and technical documents in terms of features, technology, and benefits.
Make sure your datasheet doesn’t go off on a tangent and discuss features or software components that conflict with the company’s marketing objectives. For this reason, make sure the sales team are involved in the review cycle, or at least aware of the data sheets, before you publish them.
Focus on key features.
Most datasheets are one or two pages. Typically, they include generic, boilerplate text and them about two hundred words describing the actual product. If you’ve gone over two pages, you might want to step back and see where you can refine the text. You’ve put in too much. Pare it back.
#2 At a glance
In this section, identify the 3-4 points you want to stand out.
Expect readers to scan the datasheet.
When their eyes lands on the At a Glance section, make sure that you’ve highlighted the 3-4 items you want them to focus on.
Examples could be:
- How does your product work from a technical perspective?
- How is it different from your competitors?
- What does your product do?
- How does it benefit your buyer?
- Who else is using it?
Include a product definition on the first page.
Remember, when someone encounters your datasheet for the first time, you need to give them some context of where if fits into your product mix.
A simple one-line definition is a good way to do this.
This also help you, and other teams, agree on the exact wording, phrasing, and key words you want to use to describe the product.
A concise definition orients the reader. Once they understand the purpose of the product, they can then scan through the rest of the datasheet with a certain confidence. Without this definition, the reader has to divine the purpose of the technology by themselves; some won’t have the patience.
So, why should I use your product?
This is what’s going through the reader’s mind all the time.
To address this, list the top features at the top of the datasheet. Remember, you don’t want to include them all, just the big hitters. Other lesser features you can weave into the narrative.
Summarize each product’s benefits.
Use positive language, give examples to place things in context. Make sure to tie the features together so there is a natural progression.
A common way to layout the datasheet is to list the benefits in the left-hand column. You can also do this in the right, of course, depending on the design of the template, but I suspect that the reader will start at the top left and work their way down.
Use bullets, short action verbs, and keep the text brief. Write to be scanned.
Think of the headlines as a mini table of contents for your datasheet. In other words, if you had a large document about this product and somehow had to distill it into four or five headings, well, that’s the approach you need to take with the datasheet headings.
Use the headlines and sub-heads to iterate your main points and steer the reader through the document. Make sure there is a logical connection between each heading. Avoid clever work play. Stay on topic. Remember, this is an educational, not a sales document.
Here’s an idea.
After you’ve finished the first draft, print it out and look at the headlines and sub-heads only.
Does it make sense?
Does one of them jar when you scan over it?
If so, revise the text.
Now, try it again.
If the reader could only read the headings—and the headings only—would they get the gist of the document?
Whatever you bold stands out.
So, for that reason, make sure to bold the single most important word, phrase, product, specification that you want to bring to the reader’s attention.
Be selective. Don’t over-do it. If you bold everything, it loses its impact.
Remember, that we’re all in a hurry. Be honest. When you first read this article, you skimmed it first, then went back and read it in more details.
So, with that in mind, bold key words and phrases that you want to stand out. Assume the person will scan the datasheet first.
What do you want her to see? What features, specifications, platforms, benefits do you want to stand out?
Now, let’s look at lists.
Who doesn’t love a good list?
It helps you see, at a glance, the key items.
Put the most important item at the top of the list. It’s just human nature but we often look at the first one or two items first, then ignore the rest.
For this reason, keep your lists short. Three or four items in a list is enough. Any more and you’re wasting your time. The reader won’t get that far.
Do you read more than three or four items in a line? Neither do they?
So, use bullet points to break up the text, and make it easy to scan.
Another thing. Start each bullet point phrase with an action-oriented verb, if possible.
#8 Ask questions
Enjoying this article so far?
See, it’s hard not to give an answer, even if you don’t feel like it.
Questions prompt us. They bring us to life.
Add questions to your datasheets, and other marketing documents, to step the reader from passively scanning the text. Make them sit up, give an opinion, stay engaged. As always, don’t over-do it.
Structure your headers and sub-heads as questions.
Write your headings and sub-heads in a question and answer format in the first paragraph after the main heading section.
Examples of headers formatted as questions include:
- How does [Product] compare to other data warehouse solutions?
- Why is [Product] the best choice for reducing risks?
- Who benefits by using [Product]?
- Where can I learn more about [Product]?
What do other people think?
Adding a nice, short quote is a nice way to give some balance to the datasheet and bring a personal touch to the document. It ‘humanizes’ it, as they say in marketing.
Try to avoid quotes that sound contrived. Readers will sense this.
Likewise, be careful that the text isn’t overloaded with keywords, phrases, or jargon. Where possible, use authentic-sounding quotes.
Typically, quotes are placed on the first page, usually in the center where they’re hard to miss.
So, what do you want the reader to do after they’ve read the datasheet?
Download a trial version of the software?
Contact the sales department?
Connect with you on social media?
It depends where the datasheet fits into your overarching marketing goals, but you should aim to have at least one call to action.
If you don’t have, well, what do you think they’ll do next?
The simplest approach is to encourage them to learn more about your company but I find this a bit weak.
Maybe they’re already on your website. What then?
One suggestion is to add a time-limited incentive.
Try our software for only 9.99 per month before March 1st.
Otherwise, send them to other resources, such as white papers, technical documents, or API reference material.
But make them do something!
#11 Learn more
At this point, they’ve got all the way to the end of the datasheet.
They must be interested, right?
As mentioned above, try to find some way to encourage them to download your software, subscribe to your newsletter or read other related data sheets.
Break up the text with nice social media icons, charts, tables, and other visual devices.
The purpose of your datasheet is to give prospective clients that material they need to assess whether your product matches their needs.
For this reason, when you’ve finished the document, put it aside for a while. Then come back to it and see if it meets these requirements.
When writing, aim for two pages with your datasheet. Write it to be scanned. Avoid sales fluff, marketing pitches, and other noise that distracts the reader.
Stay focussed. Prioritize the features, break out the benefits, and include a supporting quote if possible.
Finally, get it reviewed by someone outside your team. Did they understand it? Could they explain the product in simple English?