Two And A Half Secrets Of Compelling Case Studies

What’s wrong with him? How can his career survive? When are they going to haul him off for treatment?

Part of our fascination with the exploits of Two and a Half Men star Charlie Sheen, is in not knowing what’s going to happen next. Whether it’s fiction or real-life, we’re always looking for “dramatic tension” in storytelling. Just when you think that the dust is about to settle, the hero’s feet are held to the fire once more. In Sheen’s case this may be self-inflicted, but the result is the same: tension and conflict are what keep us listening, watching and reading.

Our brains are hard-wired for this. Part of our cerebral cortex called Broca’s Area acts like a nightclub bouncer, letting in what’s surprising, impressive and unexpected, while keeping at bay the ordinary and predictable.

Why, then, aren’t more businesses taking advantage of this fact?

It’s no longer hokey for businesses to talk about the power of storytelling. Frequently, in the Harvard Business Press and other prestigious management publications, you’ll find articles about the value of stories. A recent HBR blog post, for example, discussed the way good business leaders “tell stories that turn fear into a powerful motivator.”

You’re probably already familiar with some of the enduring “origin’” and “values” stories of big name organizations. How Sam Walton of Wal-Mart, walked anonymously around his stores to get a better feel for the needs of the “average” shopper. Or that Bill Hewlett, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard once took a bolt-cutter to the lock on the supply room door, forever spreading an unspoken “truth” about the importance of trust at HP.

Businesses, like Hollywood, are awash with good stories. Unfortunately most companies poorly communicate one of the most common: the case study.

This form of marketing communication, about a time when you helped a client overcome a challenge, appears on websites as well as printed materials. Case studies are often referred to as “success stories,” but that’s not accurate. Not because of any lack of “success,” but because most case studies don’t adhere to a classic story structure that draws us in and keeps us reading or watching.


Traditional case studies are typically crafted in three paragraphs, as follows:

Challenge: What was the client’s problem that brought him/her to you?

Solution: How did you help solve their problem?

Results: What were the benefits (preferably tangible/measurable) experienced by the client after implementing your solution?

Here are the two and a half problems with that format and how you can make your case studies stand out from the crowd:

Don’t confuse the “inciting incident” with “challenge.”

In the mythic story structure known as the “Hero’s Journey” we first meet the hero in their “ordinary world.” This is quickly followed by the inciting incident or “call to adventure”: Harry Potter is living in suburbia when Hagrid turns up to reveal that Harry’s father was a wizard. Prince Albert gets by as a stammerer until his brother abdicates and “Bertie” becomes King George VI, a man who must communicate confidently and powerfully with his British subjects on the eve of World War II, which is the storyline of the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech.

The word “challenge” used in the first paragraph of most case studies is a misnomer for what is really the inciting incident or the event that requires companies to seek out a new product, service or approach. Their challenge doesn’t really end there, nor should it if you want your case studies to be compelling and interesting to read.


Don’t omit the heart of your story – the ongoing challenges

The most compelling stories are those that acknowledge ongoing obstacles and impediments. For example, what challenges did your client face from other stakeholders who didn’t immediately buy into the solution? What apprehension did your internal advocate feel about your plan, even after you came on board? To make out that the path from challenge to solution is straightforward is neither truthful nor interesting, yet most case studies suggest exactly that.

A key advantage of plugging this omission is that you get a more complete picture of your client’s actual experience (obstacles, apprehensions and all) during the implementation process, which makes for a meatier story. To uncover this, you might ask questions like:

a) What was the strongest opposition to our proposed solution?

b) Why was there no buy-in from these stakeholders originally? What were their fears and concerns?

c) What did you/we do to change that?

d) How might we have helped you overcome those objections earlier?

½. Yes, you included a hero – just the wrong one!


Luke Skywalker (Star Wars), Harry Potter (Deathly Hallows etc), King George VI (the King’s Speech) and Nina (Natalie Portman in Black Swan) are the heroes of these stories because they are the people who are most changed from beginning to end. As a solution provider, you are more akin to a mentor (think Obi Wan Kenobi or Dumbledore). You’re not the hero because you haven’t changed, your client has. Or they should have, if you did your job! Don’t hog the limelight here; make others the hero, not you.

Crafting your case studies around the hero’s journey story structure can result in marketing communications that are not only more interesting to read, but resonate more truthfully and powerfully with prospective clients.

The vast majority of case studies overlook the compelling nature of stories that openly and honestly address the obstacles and apprehensions people have before and during the change process.

By making your existing clients the heroes of these stories, you are shining the light where it really belongs. Because, let’s face it, everyone loves to feel they are heroes.

Including, we assume, Charlie Sheen. For whom we can only hope his ongoing story has a happy ending.

[pextestim name=”MaAnna Stephenson” img=”” occup=”Founder” org=”BlogAid” link=””]I was struggling with how to make an important case study interesting for my blog readers and potential clients. Dr. Liz provided excellent guidance for taking a unique angle that helped me turn it into a captivating story, with my client at the center as the hero. [/pextestim]


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