There's something about the term 'case study' that leaves me cold.

Case studies are meant to explain the value of a past success, but who said they had to be dry, boring or even all about you?

The trouble is, a traditional case study narrates the facts, but it's rare to find a case study that tells a good story. Why? Typically, it's frowned upon to admit mistakes, errors, failings or any weakness at all, right?

Bizarrely, herein lies the value. Judge for yourself by reading this:

Eight years ago, I was given a contract for $250,000 to fulfill a marketing need for my first ever blue-chip client and it went disastrously wrong. We nearly lost everything. Here are the seven mistakes we made and the nine things we do differently now as a result.

Would you continue to read that story? I don't know about you, but I want to know what went so wrong--and how they changed things for the better. Why? Because it's the start of a good story, that's why.

People like to connect with people. One of the hardest achievements in business is creating empathy for our brand, yet we fail to use the true stories all around us, perhaps for fear of being unprofessional. It's not natural to admit weakness, display vulnerability, talk about fears or failings. Isn't that what being human is all about?

Robert McKee, the legendary Hollywood screenwriting coach and business story advisor, says, "Branding is nothing more than a company's pursuit of empathy for a corporate entity."

He also says something else, something even more profound: "You can't create a positive emotional charge without first moving from the negative, and vice versa."

It's simple cause and effect.

Without any challenge or adversity, you've got no story. And without story, there's very little chance of creating empathy with an audience.

Why do we like to root for the underdog? Why do we identify with the struggling hero of a story trying to defy all odds?

It's because our bodies are the 'hardware' and the story is the 'software' our brain runs to make sense of the world. Being entertained by life's struggles without fear of consequence is engaging, and actually the very reason we're captivated.

I recently attended McKee's Storynomics workshop and had my eyes opened to a completely different approach to business storytelling. McKee calls it the 'Purpose Told Story.'

Here are my top takeaways for structuring a case study in storified fashion:

Intrigue

Like any good story, you have to capture the attention of the audience before anything else can follow. What was unique, interesting or unusual about your particular situation?

Set the scene so that the audience simply has to find out more.

Anticipation

The more you illustrate the gap between your current situation and the desired position your customer needed to reach, the more interesting your journey towards success becomes.

Ask relevant questions you would want the audience to ask and then build towards the reveal.

Surprise

If your audience can easily guess what you did next, there's no value to your story whatsoever. What can you communicate that surprises your audience to build further intrigue and relevant context for your audience?

Journey from negative to positive

You can do this in three steps:

  1. Be refreshingly honest about the challenge. Admitting that you didn't have an immediate solution highlights the fact you can use experience, a process or creative problem solving to overcome real-life challenges. This is refreshingly honest, and it gives purpose and builds value in your solution.
  2. Tell the story of how it felt to be in the negative position to humanize the situation and highlight the emotional impact of the problem.
  3. Position yourself as the underdog by highlighting the size of the adversity you face.

Insight

Showcase the real value of your solution by highlighting the learnings of the journey, not just the solution itself.

This will build value in your past experience, and positions you as the expert in an acceptable way.

Call to action

Make it easy for people in the same situation as your 'example' customer to reach you.

If you have a specific, relevant and compelling offer that addresses the biggest pain or most desirable outcome of the scenario, you will find yourself connecting with many more ideal customers to work with in the future.

Published on: Nov 3, 2016
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