Telling a good story in the age of attention-challenged readers

[Image courtesy of Sebastien Wiertz at Flickr Creative Commons]

“Yeah, yeah,” said my friend recently. “Problem, solution, benefits – I’ve heard it all before. Case studies are so yesterday. Nobody still read them any more, do they?”

Maybe not. And maybe there’s a good reason for that.

The problem-solution-benefits structure you can’t do anything about – because that’s what a case study is. But the formulaic way of relating the story hasn’t changed much, so perhaps it’s time to give it a makeover.

Here are some ideas for case study 2.0: 

  • Loosen up. So many case studies read like dry academic papers. Now there is a serious point to them, but that doesn’t mean they have to be serious themselves. The best stories are the ones that you tell with a light touch – so don’t go all stiff and stilted. Use everyday language and an informal approach. Tell the story as if you’re talking to a prospect over a cup of coffee.  (But don’t get too informal and slouch on the table.)
  • Take a back seat. Often, the best way of telling a story is not to tell a story. Not by yourself, that is. If you can get your client to recount a tale with a happy ending, it’s much more powerful. So include quotes throughout, and don’t be scared to make them long. In the past, I’ve written case studies just by transcribing interviews with clients’ clients. (But don’t tell anyone.)
  • Run the numbers. Let’s face it: when you read a case study, the bottom line is all you care about. How much did a similar client save/make/achieve? Were sales up? Costs down? Efficiency levels improved? If so, by how much? Your readers are exactly the same, so make sure you highlight the headline figures and make them easy to see right from word go. 
  • Chunk it. This applies to all copy. It’s one of the reasons these bullet points are bullet points. As well as having problem-solution-benefits sections, put quotes in boxes, set figures apart from body copy, and make it easy for the reader to thread their way through your text. 
  • Involve your audience. Again, something that applies across the board. But how do you do it with case studies, which are essentially about you and the client you helped? Simple. Just pull the reader in by talking to them direct (If you’ve ever wondered how to protect your margin in a competitive market, you’re not alone. Acme Inc faced just such a challenge…). Nothing hooks a reader and keeps them reading more than that one simple word: you.
  • Dare to be different. Who said a case study has to be copy-heavy? If you want to shake things up, try changing the format. Make it an infographic that gets the story across in pictures as well as words. And remember, less copy doesn’t mean less work: if anything, it means that more than ever, as each word has to pull its weight. 
  • Put a smile on your face. A case study is always – repeat, always – about solving a problem. And yes, we can dress it up as an issue, or a challenge, but when the tide goes out and it’s standing naked on the beach, it’s a good old-fashioned common-or-garden problem. Which means it’s innately negative. But you can’t be, so when you’re sketching out the problem, do it fast, and focus on the upside. Spin positive, said a client recently. Quite. 
  • Upsize and downsize. OK, so you’ve made all the right moves and have the perfect case study, but there’s no guarantee that people will read it. So why not increase your chances and get more than one bite of the cherry? Create several versions – infographic, PowerPoint slide, regular version, long version. Turn it into a blog post. Include it in your newsletter, and record a 30-second version for your on-hold message. Slice, dice, recycle and reuse.

As you can see, when it comes to case studies, there’s life in the old dog yet. And to answer my sceptical friend’s question – yes, people do read them.

As long as you make them worth reading.