Communicating with Case Studies

You can make your point more powerfully by creating a
case study, a specially constructed story that puts the reader
or listener in the shoes of a decision maker.

A few weeks ago, a couple of colleagues and I discussed a new
business idea. But, we had trouble expressing how this new
business would provide value.

And, out of our discussions came the idea of writing a case
study. If you’re not familiar with them, case studies are
histories of business initiatives.

They’re like articles, but they put the reader into the shoes of
a person making a difficult decision. Other professions also use
case studies; you’ve probably heard of medical case studies, for
example. Medical students get a set of facts about a patient,
and perhaps some background or context, and then must diagnose
the patient’s condition or disease.

Business case studies have proven popular at many university
business schools (with the profs, at least). In some senses, the
case study is the next best thing to being involved in a real

Now, how is this relevant for you? Well, if you have to persuade
others to adopt your point of view, or buy your products, or
vote for you, then you might find a case study useful.

In fact, you may be doing something like that already. Whenever
you tell a story that’s designed to make a certain point, you’re
using a form of case study.

During my brief foray into life insurance sales, for example, I
learned that emotion sells policies, and not logic. That’s why
people in the business have a raft of stories about people who
did or did not have protection when they died.

The moral, of course, is that you should not only have life
insurance, but you should have the right kind, and in the right
amount. Now, if you sold life insurance, you would quickly find
that no one listens when you explain the logic, but they will
listen — and act — if you have your case studies (your

So, having gone through all that, is a case study just a fancy
name for an anecdote or story? Yes, to a certain extent it is.

But, when you think of a case study, think of it as a more
elaborate and more logically constructed story. And, it’s
usually a real-life story. To illustrate the idea further, let’s
go through the steps involved in creating one.

Your case study starts by identifying a person and an
organization, along with relevant information that provides
context to the issue addressed in the case.

It also introduces the decision or dilemma. In many cases, the
writer sets out two or more possible options. One of those
options may be to do nothing, to maintain the status quo.
Another option may demand significant changes, and yet a third
option would require more modest changes. However you set the
options, they should offer distinct choices to the reader. Don’t
allow a muddling-through solution that involves easy compromises.

Now that you’ve set out the choices, provide the basic facts and
opinions the reader will need to make a logical choice. Like the
writer of a mystery novel, you need to provide all the critical
information without giving away the solution. And like a mystery
writer, you may introduce a few false trails.

As you develop the case study, keep in mind that you’re trying
to convey that the person or company in the case had to make a
difficult decision. And the more the reader feels that
difficulty, the more effective the case.

Finally, provide an outcome if possible. Let the reader know
which option the person or company chose, and how that decision
worked out. After all, you’ve been telling a story, and your
audience will want to know how it ended. Ideally, you would not
give the reader access to the outcome until after he or she
makes that decision.

In summary, you can make your point more powerfully by creating
a case study, a specially constructed story that puts the reader
or listener in the shoes of a decision maker.

Robert F. Abbott writes and publishes Abbott’s Communication Letter. If you subscribe, you will receive, at no charge,
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