Case study copywriting: tips for getting the intro right

As customer reference programmes become more important to our clients, many of them are reassessing the way their case studies are written, looking for a more engaging style of storytelling. Sometimes this leads to a tension between the old way of doing things and the new. That’s what lay behind a call I took recently from a client looking for advice on a case study opening.

The problem: context vs moving the plot along

If you’re trying to draw a reader into a story, starting with a paragraph that is effectively a bit of company boilerplate is hardly designed to capture the interest and imagination of the reader. You know the type of thing:

AnyCo is the world’s leading supplier of widgets to this industry and that industry. Its thousands of staff operate in dozens of countries to generate annual revenues of so many millions of dollars.

Our instinct as storytellers is to dispense with this kind of background unless it really is directly relevant to the core narrative; and if it is relevant, we aim to make that relevance more immediately obvious and express it in a more interesting way.

The client recognised this but was concerned about alienating readers. Not only are people used to case studies starting with a bit of blurb about the subject company, but it’s also arguable that the context creates a picture in the reader’s mind that they’d feel slightly lost without, even if it’s not necessary to the story. It’s no good if you start telling a gripping story but all your reader wants to know is: ‘Who are we talking about here? Tell me something about them first.’

The solution: weave context into story

Our solution to this problem is twofold:

We recommend designing a case study template that has a small ‘about the company’ section, readily visible on the front page, for those who want that kind of anchoring context. This lets you dispense with unnecessary company background in the narrative flow.

Secondly, we certainly don’t recommend leaving the reader without an answer to the question ‘who are we talking about here?’ But the answer should be much more personal and relevant than the boilerplate approach can achieve.

For example, if we’re writing about the importance of communications technology to a police force, we wouldn’t start with: ‘[AnyPolice] is responsible for protecting the 100,000 citizens of [Country] from crime’.

We might start with something more like: ‘The recent capture of dozens of criminals in a massive nationwide police sting in [Country] could never have happened without the ability of [AnyPolice] to operate in complete synchronicity with the customs and revenue services.’

No doubt there are other ways to reconcile the need for context and good storytelling. Do you have any useful tips? Tell us in the comments.

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The secret of successful storytelling?

I recently watched a DVD of a favourite TV show with commentary from one of the writers. He was arguing that it’s vital for the showrunner — the person responsible for all the creative aspects of the show, from the writing and art direction to the filming and editing — to be a writer.

Put a writer in charge

He pointed out how storytelling can fail when a writer doesn’t have the final say. TV directors, unlike movie directors, direct at most a few episodes in a season; they don’t realise how their cool piece of film affects a character’s arc or how something must happen a certain way in this episode to pay off five episodes later. And showrunners (or executive producers) without a writing background don’t understand how stories are set up, structured, pay off or entertain — so they don’t know what has to happen creatively to ensure that the story gets told well.

In marketing communications the principle of having a writer in charge is just as important. Whether it’s a white paper, a video case study, a website or a lead-generation campaign, it’s still primarily the words — the copy — that carry the story and the message.

The writer should be first in and last out

Vital as format, design, imagery, colour and music are, they need to serve the copy if the story and message are to be persuasive. And a writer — the ‘head writer’ if we continue our TV theme — is best placed to understand how the structure and tone of the copy must work to get the message across in a compelling way for the target audience.

The writer may not have the skills to deliver the other creative elements, but they’re best able to tell if those elements are failing or succeeding in serving the words. Carey (with the help of Roger Horberry) put it well in an earlier blog entry: the writer should be first in and last out on every job.

In pursuit of short copy…but you don’t want that (really)

Making sense of the world around us is both helped and hindered by the mass of information we can access these days. Never before have we had so many opportunities to learn and satisfy our curiosity on just about any topic that piques our interest. I love it: instant access to expertise and knowhow right around the globe. How great is that.

Overwhelming copy

But a little like Midas, perhaps, that wealth and richness can be hard to handle. The risk is we become bloated and feel overwhelmed by ‘too much information’. So, the smarter practitioners look for ways to simplify and take short cuts to the information they need. When we are communicating with savvy business decision-makers we need to apply this principle with rigour.

Short copy isn’t always best

When it comes to copy, the misdirection is a request to ‘make it shorter’. Can we use less words? The answer, of course, is yes we can. But in the cutting it’s all too easy to lose the very thing that will guide the reader to a eureka moment. Brevity is good but, to quote Roger Horberry (again), clarity is much much better.

Clarity doesn’t necessarily mean longer copy – but it might do. It could be vital to include essential details to crystallise understanding or provide examples to illustrate the point. The trick is not to include so much detail as to bore the reader ridged, to stop when they are likely to have got the message already. It’s easy enough to annex detail and explanations while still making them accessible in a sidebar or appendix.

Our goal is to persuade and move the reader though the buying process. By understanding their need for information at each stage we’re able to make sure the content we are creating aligns with this – and we don’t force feed them more than they can handle.

Spotting the good stuff: the role of the copywriter

Before they call us in, some of our clients are in the habit of briefing a creative team to come up with a concept. They’ve seen visuals and have selected a front cover; a dps layout and a couple of variants; a set of beautifully shot images. It looks the bee’s knees and right on brand. And then they brief the content. I simplify, but ‘about 2000 words to fill this please’ isn’t too wide of the mark.

But who are we talking to? What do you want to say? How do you know that it’ll take 2000 words and who said a brochure was the right vehicle in the first place? And now they have to brief all over again.

So when should the copywriter get involved?

The best jobs are the ones when the copywriter is first in and last out – thank you Mr Horberry for articulating this so eloquently.

  • First in because someone has to ask the questions, capture thoughts and opinions and turn ideas into words; this is the natural role of the copywriter.
  • And last because writing provides continuity and ensures coherence in the final execution.

Whether for digital, print, or presentation our writers are involved throughout the creative process.

What is copywriting?

A definition that I have liked for a while now and endorsed by Roger Horberry in his interesting book ‘Brilliant Copywriting’ is that it is salesmanship in print. This is a quote from the illustrious adman John E Kennedy. We’ve long chattered on about words that sell, but what about those that persuade and incite action. Roger is right (or is it just that I agree with him?); ‘selling’ is only half the task of the copywriter. If you take the construction of a rational logical argument based on a tangible financial attributes to its extreme you end up with copy that’s cold and pretty unconvincing. People rarely buy for wholly rational reasons and charm, humour and good ol’ entertainment all have a part to play in persuading our audience to act.

Is that a drum roll I hear? Enter the copywriter: professional persuader and story teller extraordinaire.

Size matters

I had an interesting meeting with a new client today. We often try and convince clients to try different approaches to engage their prospects and customers more. This client beat me to it. From the off they said that they wanted to tell a story to enthral the reader.

There was a time when whitepapers were long, technical pieces, often with a large element of blue-sky thinking; and case studies were quite in-depth reviews of a project. Driven by the perception of a time-poor audience, bombarded by thousands of marketing messages, we’ve seen pieces get shorter and shorter. But there are dangers in making everything shorter. Not only is there the risk of ‘dumbing down’ the message, but it can also take the human interest out of the story. Edited down to a curt list of bullet points, the customer and their story become implausible and impossible to empathise with. Simplified to appeal to a broader audience, the whitepaper can become nothing more than a glorified brochure—that’s fine, but not when you are trying to demonstrate competence and thought-leadership to technical decision makers.

At HN we aren’t bound by industry-standard terms. We look at each project and agree with the client what length, tone and level of technical detail is most appropriate to the audience and therefore be best at achieving their objectives. Why not have a look at our article The resurgence of storytelling, or give us a call and put us to the test.

We get mail

The other day an email landed in one of our inboxes and we passed it around in wonder; we couldn’t believe how long-winded and awkward it was. Here’s the opening:

In the midst of this dynamic, hyper-competitive global economy, understanding and addressing the ever-evolving needs and requirements of every customer is increasingly more complex yet essential. In response, a complete shift is happening in the way marketers are pursuing buyers and consumers, as well as addressing the needs of the sales channels. These realities provide immense challenges and opportunities for marketers.

Did you make it all the way to the end? If you were the recipient, would you continue reading?

To be fair, it wasn’t long ago that the trend was predominantly for a style of copy only slightly toned down from this example. We weren’t allowed to address ‘the business audience’ as if they were normal people who might appreciate plain speaking. There was a whole other language to use, ‘business language’; and it was unengaging, passive and wordy. Why say ‘in’ when you can say ‘in the midst of’? Why be satisfied with addressing customer needs if you can address both their needs and their requirements? Oh wait, not just address, but understand also. And we’re still in the first sentence!

The tendency to produce over-complex and verbose copy came, we think, from the belief that wordiness conveys seriousness and authority; and that adding adjectives makes copy more powerful. Neither of these beliefs has ever been true.

But things have changed. While each brand is doing it slightly differently, our clients are asking us for a much more relaxed style. They want copy that talks directly to their audience without fuss or embellishment. Have we writers finally managed to convince everyone that its possible to be both authoritative and concise? And that all those adjectives dilute the message?

Possibly; but I think the change really stems from accepting that people don’t expect, or want, to be addressed in a radically different way when they walk into work. It may never be appropriate to address the CIO or IT manager of a target company as if they’re your mate; but (in the UK and US at least) it’s become acceptable to address them as real human beings. That’s a trend we can only encourage.

-ise or -ize?

Contrary to popular belief, spelling words such as maximise with a z isn’t a recent American innovation. The English language has always recognised variant spellings using both –ise and –ize suffixes.

ise or ize

Noah Webster (1758–1843), a teacher in Hartford, Connecticut, believed that the English language suffered from an excess of pedantry which he blamed on the British aristocracy. Even today, debates over English spelling invariably involve discussions about the Greek and Latin roots of the language.

Webster argued that the language should be guided by “the same republican principles as American civil and ecclesiastical constitutions”—in other words, by popular usage. So he set about producing his own dictionary, which went on to become a cornerstone of teaching English in America and was in part responsible for the now-familiar spelling bee. Over the course of more than 300 editions, he made many changes including adopting the ize ending, dropping the u from words like colour, and switching around the e and r in words like centre.

It may come as a surprise to learn that the bastion of the English language, The Oxford English Dictionary, has always favoured –ize, on the basis that the suffix derives from the Greek suffix –izo. In contrast, most other dictionaries reflect the adoption of the –ise ending for words that entered the language via French, which uses -ise.

When to ise or ize

But there are some words that should never be spelt with a Z. These include words which do not derive from the -izo suffix, but from a different root which coincidentally ends in –ise. Examples include vise (revise, advise), cise (exercise, incise) and prise (enterprise, compromise, surprise). Misguided simplification of the rule to universally replace Zs with Ss has also led to mistakes such as analyze which is, well, wrong—although Microsoft Word doesn’t have a problem with it.

Which alternative you choose is unlikely to greatly affect the impact of your message. If your proposition is compelling and well crafted, even the most steadfast pedagogue will focus on what you are saying, not whether you’ve used Ss or Zs—so long as you are consistent.