Words at work

– 9 min read

Writing a case study? Approach it like a bestselling author.

Jamie Wallace

Jamie Wallace

Case study

Let’s be honest. Most case studies are excruciatingly boring. And in the world of content, boring is a death sentence. 

Part of the issue is the default problem/solution/results formula. While this approach roughly mirrors the classic three-act story, marketers rarely use it to tell an actual narrative. Instead, most case studies focus too much on the company and not enough on the customer. Rather than telling an actual story that a reader can step into and experience, a lot of case studies turn into over-simplified and self-serving promotional pieces that readers see through immediately. 

Case study writers who want to do better can benefit a lot from learning more about how to craft a truly engaging story — one that’s designed to hold the reader’s interest and evoke a very specific meaning. 

As a New York Times bestselling author and bona fide story expert, Lani Diane Rich knows more than a little about story craft. In fact, she just published a new book on the topic. Based on her popular and comprehensive podcast of the same name, How Story Works, “an elegant guide to the craft of storytelling,” is an intentionally slim volume that boils Lani’s substantial expertise down to its essence. It’s a quick read, but one you’ll return to again and again as its wisdom starts to sink in. 

Lani’s primary audience may be creative writers like novelists and screenwriters, but her frameworks can be just as valuable for marketing writers. We’re not saying that using Lani’s techniques will turn your next case study into an Oscar-worthy blockbuster, but we do believe they can level up your case study game so your customer stories are more engaging and more effective. 

Three steps to reverse engineer an effective case study

One of the most helpful things Lani does in her work is to define her terms. It’s a running joke with her sometime co-host, researcher Dr. Kelly Jones. But understanding the difference between different story elements is no laughing matter. 

In How Story Works, Lani breaks down some key terms that often cause confusion, especially in the marketing world:

  • Story: A recounted event or series of events
  • Narrative: The meaning evoked by a story
  • Storytelling: The art of building a story purposefully to serve a particular narrative
  • Meaning: The implied or explicit significance of a thing

The trick to creating a story that works is understanding how to weave all these elements together.

Early on, Lani starts to explain the connections between these terms by emphasizing the importance of the word “recounted” in her definition of story. She says, 

“A story isn’t the event or series of events themselves; a story is the recounting of those events. This is incredibly important; because in order for a story to be a story, it has to be told, and in being told, it will be edited. Random events throughout a day are just events until someone edits out the unimportant details and recounts the story with a specific meaning in mind, thus creating a narrative.”

So, how can you apply these ideas to writing a kick-ass case study? You can start with the end in mind, and then reverse engineer your way back to crafting the actual story.

Step 1: Identify the MEANING you’re trying to convey

Like any other piece of marketing content, a case study is meant to deliver a specific message. What’s the point you’re trying to make with a particular customer story? Is it something about the efficacy of your solution, the collaborative skills of your team, your ability to innovate, your team’s speed? What’s the one thing you want a reader to take away from the case study? 

Step 2: Collect and inventory the series of events that might go into the STORY you are trying to tell

As Lani points out, a story is an edited recounting of events — a selective retelling of what happened. The events and other details related to a customer project are like individual ingredients that you can use to create different dishes depending on which ones you select and how you mix them. Use your case study intake to collect as much information as you can. You will sort it all out later.

Step 3: Apply STORYTELLING skills to combine select STORY elements into a well-shaped NARRATIVE that illuminates the MEANING you want to convey. 

One of the most powerful storytelling skills any writer has is knowing which events and details to use, and which to leave out. Review the story elements you have in the context of the meaning you’re trying to convey, and identify which details serve your narrative. It’s almost like building a legal case — all the pieces have to fit together to prove your point in an engaging and convincing manner. Applying structure and focus is what shapes a series of seemingly random events and details into an effective narrative.

Pro-tip: Sometimes, after going through Step 2, you’ll have to revisit Step 1. When it turns out that the events don’t align with the intended meaning, it’s best to adjust the meaning rather than trying to twist the events to tell a story that just isn’t there. 

Key storytelling skill: how case study writers can use the SEE Change framework

Lani’s “SEE Change” framework is a helpful tool for building narrative structure. It provides a story-based lens through which to view a case study:

Start the conflict

Stories run on conflict. Without it, readers quickly lose interest. In fiction, we’re used to looking for the “good guy” (protagonist) and the “bad guy” (antagonist) in a story. In a business case study, your protagonist is your customer. The antagonist is the challenge they have to overcome. This might be a clunky legacy system that is slowing down their sales team, an aggressive competitor, an unexpected shift in user needs, a pandemic that wreaks havoc on business as usual. 

Lani explains that the most effective conflicts are ones in which the antagonist and protagonist have goals that are mutually exclusive. In other words, if either wins, the other loses. For example, if your conflict is based on growing market share, there’s only one winner—your customer or a competitor. They can’t both claim the same market share, so their goals are mutually exclusive. 

It’s also important to understand the “why” behind the conflict. While companies are not people, they are made up of people and they serve people. Weaving in what motivates a customer to engage in a particular conflict makes it easier for readers to connect with the story, and even see themselves in a similar story of their own. 

Escalate the conflict

Very few projects go off without a single hitch. Sometimes, the urge is to gloss over any hiccups to try and make everything look super easy. This is a missed opportunity. Don’t hide the speed bumps. They are what make your story more realistic and more relatable. They also help heighten the tension and encourage readers to pull for your customer to succeed, despite the odds. Did you hit a wall with timing or budget? Did you run into technical difficulties? Was there a leadership change at the organization, or an emerging technology that changed the game mid-project? Think about additional challenges as more opportunities to show your strengths. 

End the conflict

In fiction, story resolutions are about finding a new equilibrium, a new—and hopefully improved—status quo. Ending the conflict in a case study is all about showing the results of your labors. How did you resolve the original conflict? To bring things full circle, it’s helpful to revisit the original conflict and goals to show, clearly, how your protagonist measured up.

Change the world 

Finally, a story is given meaning when you show how the events of the story have changed the world. In fiction, there’s a trick for identifying what any story or novel or screenplay is about, you look at the ending. The ending reveals the intended message. 

But it’s not enough to simply show how the world has changed, you also want to show why the world changed. People care about the why. The why speaks to what motivates us, what drives us to do the things we do. The why is the mission or vision that we relate to. As Lani puts it, “The why is the reason why story is the most powerful force on earth, I’m not even joking with you.”

Case studies developed with story craft are better case studies

In the close of How Story Works, Lani offers this bit of inspiring perspective:

In a quote commonly attributed to Plato, but for which I cannot find a proper citation, “Those who tell the stories rule society.” And it makes sense; if humans are desperately and constantly in search of meaning, if we are perpetually on the hunt for the why, then the person who provides that meaning, who gives us the why … well, that person is running the whole game. 

Your next case study probably won’t change the world at large, but it just might change someone’s world if it’s a well-constructed narrative that helps the reader find the meaning they’re searching for. Using story craft and storytelling skills well will help you elevate that meaning so it’s easier for readers to find. 

And — who knows? — looking at case studies through a story lens might help inspire you as well.