Case studies are dead. Long live success stories

Make case studies interesting to read, easy to recall and effortless to retell by introducing elements of a good story

Indranil Chakraborty

[Photograph by Gerd Altmann under Creative Commons]

This article is about case studies. No, no… do not stop reading.

I have always believed that case studies are the second most boring documents produced in the entrepreneurial world after admin manuals. They are cold, dry, formulaic documents extolling the virtues of a process, product or company. Full of jargon, claims and assertions. Often trying to oversell. As a result they are difficult to read and impossible to remember.

But it doesn't have to be that way. After all, in most business-to-business (B2B) situations it is precisely these examples of business problems that your customers have had and which your company’s product or service helped solve, that subtly, yet very persuasively show off your solutions.

A very good way of making case studies interesting to read, easy to remember and effortless to retell is by introducing elements of a good story when writing them. As discussed in earlier articles, a story in business is a fact wrapped in context and delivered with emotion. So we are not talking about inventing or creating stories but using the facts we already have in our current case studies.

Now you may be wondering how can a case study about your company’s integrated oilfield water management solution for a US gas major in a developed country have any emotion whatsoever.

Well, the person in the US gas major who was facing the problem surely had emotions about the problem he was facing. He may have been frustrated, anxious, burned out, at his wits’ end about the problem. Surely he had emotions about the issue. When the team in your company, using your product and services helped solve his problem, I am sure again he had emotions. A different set of emotions - relief, satisfaction, excited about the way forward. And the success of having solved the problem, with your product’s help, may have brought him recognition, accolades and rewards. Which in turn would have given him emotions of pride and made him feel inspired.

When you introduce the person at the heart of the story and tell us how he felt, you engage the listener and the listener connects with the protagonist and wants to read on to see how this challenge was solved and how it all ended happily. We all like happy endings. We like resolutions.

When we create a connection between the listener and the central character of the story and the listener resonates with "yes, I have the same problem", this is when the case study, or what we call a success story, really hits home.

Here is an example of one of the success stories I use in my consulting practice.

Ruchira is the national managing partner for the tax practice of a major professional services firm. She has about 800 people in her team. The practice needed to change but getting the partners on board was like herding cats. Additionally, employee survey feedback indicated that the staff didn't understand the strategy, didn't know their role in bringing it to life and thought it sounded like jargon. Ruchira felt like the entire burden of communicating the strategy was being put on her shoulders. She engaged StoryWorks to help turn the strategy into a strategic story and engaged lots of partners and staff in the process. The top 20 leaders of the practice were then taught how to tell the strategic story. A week or so after the workshop, Ruchira called StoryWorks to give some feedback. The three strongest critics had spoken to her to say how valuable the sessions had been and after some of the staff had been told the story by their partners they said they had completely understood it. Ruchira then decided that every partner in the practice needs to learn how to tell the strategic story.

As you would have noticed, the number of words used to describe Ruchira’s emotions were less than 5% of the entire text.

This approach of using success stories not only makes case studies interesting to read till the very end and easy to understand, but also has another huge benefit - like any other story, these are easy to remember and effortless to retell.

In a recent example, one of my clients reported that they believe they had won a mandate because a success story they had used in the pitch was retold during an internal decision making meeting. This story was very powerful in explaining how their product has helped other similar clients.

When we pitch to clients we don’t always get to meet all decision makers. When clients have their internal meetings to chose products, services and vendors, often only features and benefits of different offerings of different vendors are discussed, as the case studies we have left behind are either never read, or if read, never retold. Using a story structure makes it easy for these to be remembered and retold.

So go ahead and recast your case studies by incorporating the client whose problem your product solved into the heart of the story, tell us how the emotion arc changed from struggle to elation and watch us want to read your success story to the very end.

[This article was published concurrently in Mint]

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Gideon For-mukwai on Sep 15, 2015 4:41 p.m. said

Hi Indranil,
Greetings from Portland, USA!
Thanks for sharing this article. I enjoyed it very much, especially the way you demonstrated the frustrations of the person facing the problem, and not the problem itself.
I believe that connects deeply because the prospect sees himself or herself through the eyes of the protagonist, to a large extent.
Will be following you on Twitter, Sir.

Gideon F. For-mukwai

About the author

Indranil Chakraborty
Indranil Chakraborty



Indranil believes Business Storytelling will be the number one leadership and communication skill of the next decade. Using storytelling in the right manner, business leaders can connect, engage and inspire their teams. We are 22 times more likely to remember a story than disconnected facts. This is how he believes we can harness the natural power of stories to communicate strategy, make them stick, bring values to live and develop the communication capabilities of leaders.

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