Arnie Schwartzennegger ‘s stirring speech starts with his story of his first hero, the Russian weightlifter Yuri Vlasov, and finishes up with his new heroes protesting at the Ukrainian war. It’s beautifully constructed, as you’d expect from anyone with impeccable Hollywood credentials. It shows how a story within the storyline can be used to not make it feel like a celeb lecturing anybody.
This is Noah at 18 months, and he has only a tiny vocabulary. Barely Mama or Dada. One of his only words is “Dee” short for Hey Dugee! his favourite television program. But he knows that I’m saying No Dee because his whole body reacts, in desolation at the thought of No Dee, and he chucks the remote control down too.
Then when I say “Actually yes Dee” he perks up, picks up the controller and acknowledges that we’ll be watching the TV show Dee.
A perfect demonstration of communication in its simplest form.
Communication changes behaviour.
And change is a vital part of any storyline.
See how these three elements fit together here.
For anyone who has ever typed in the wrong URL address, the number 404 will spring to mind. In the beginning of the internet, some twenty odd years ago, a number was all you got: a bald 404 referring presumably to an error code. Some slightly more enlightened sites added a little more to the experience: “You’ve 404’d, dude.” The line still assumed a tech knowledge that was beyond most people at the time.
Gradually companies who cared just a little more about their customers reading experience wrote a few emollient words to help assuage the pain of error and feeling lost in cyberspace. But the Telegraph, which seems to be a class act in terms of its user experience seems to have done a lot better. A simple cartoon by Matt which is suitably funny and on point.
After the passion blurb, try doing the case history. If you know the answer to these numbered lines you can save buckets of time and money.
- All stories start with a client who lived in a castle.
- One day something happened that meant they needed to act.
- They came to you.
- You listened to them from a certain discipline or set of distinctions.
- You took them to a place they’d never been.
- They discovered more opportunity there than they expected.
- They lived happily ever after.
The best case histories demonstrate how you used your value proposition to get them from step 4 to 5. This is a fictitious case history but it shows you the idea.
We were first approached by John Smith in the spring of 2015 and he asked us to mow his lawn.
John Smith had a vast lawn but much of the grass was patchy with extensive areas of weed.
We did an initial assessment and came to the conclusion that before we could mow it, parts of the lawn would need re-sowing.
We agreed a sowing fee and within a week both the sowing and the mowing tasks were complete.
By the summer John had a strong, healthy lawn, and decided to host his first garden party for a very long time.
He now saves over a thousand pounds a year by hosting parties in his garden rather than rented venues.
We have since created a gazebo on the front lawn and are helping him with a project to become largely self-sufficient in growing his own vegetables.
In the example above, patchiness is a distinction that wasn’t in the conversation before the expert made the client aware of it. Can you also see how there’s a hidden opportunity in the project, ie. enjoying your lawn with paybacks that more than pay the cost of the project?
Case histories can be much more powerful than just testimonials because the best ones have some transformative quality.
Your process should show how you could take a typical client or prospect from step 3 in a typical case history to step 5. There may be up to several sub steps in your process 3 to 5. It’s a safe bet that there are more steps and more quality going in than you currently believe or know about.
When a client knows your process, it will help alleviate fears that you’ll be taking them for a ride. Complex and new services may have many steps which are unfamiliar to your target audience. Below is the process for a communications organization and you could write an informative paragraph on each step.
Morgan Freeman’s character says he’s rehabilitated, but it’s only when he describes a change in how he sees himself, his crime, and his youth, that anyone believes him.
There are a number of machine readability widgets online. They make for quite a satisfying way to check the before and after of a piece of text you might be editing. Reds are bad, greens are good. The report on the left was for the URL of a law firm. The report on the right is the the readability index of the copycourse site. Why make life difficult for your readers?
Rather than asking “What are you trying to say?”, it helps if you ask: “If you had a magic wand was is it that you’d ideally like to achieve?” For example, one of the most useless messages in the world is “Give up smoking!”
So if you stop and ask what are you trying to achieve, the answer is obviously helping people to give up smoking. You then decide what you have to say in order to achieve that. The magic wand question focuses people on the change in behaviour, not the message. Creating the right message is a seperate part of the process.
You might come up with a much more powerful piece of communication than just “Give up smoking!” You might approach it from a more strategic direction, like this campaign by Richard Foster at AMV BBDO to make people become responsible for passive smoking.
This process also allows you to break down a mammoth task into much more manageable chunks. For example, create a patch trial initiative, as one part in a four part process. In which case your change in behaviour is picking up a patch from the chemist. Once you give up the notion that’s there’s something to say, and think in terms of a change in behaviour by things you can say, you can become a better communicator.
There are your best case histories from five years ago, whose important features now look stale or no longer relevant to the problems of today.
Then there are other case histories which while showing brilliance on the part of your organisation remain so classified and secret you can’t breathe a word of the brilliance to anyone.
And there are still more case histories which while very good are quite incomplete or partial. Somehow telling them seems to feel like the story ended too soon, or started too late or other players did the important chunks of it and thereby stole the thunder.
It’s often very difficult to curate a decent show from what’s left, after you’ve culled the ones that won’t see the light of day. The result is many case histories become short and inconclusive; others are hard to follow, and leave a reader, or new business prospect, none the wiser.
So how do you create convincing, engaging case histories that don’t drop anyone in it and feel like they belong to today?
Write 3 seperate drafts
One really simple approach is to split the task into two or three clear and distinct phases, each of which needs its own mind-set.
The first mindset you’ll need is an investigative historian or journalist.
Use this to write a Warts-and-All version first, on the sacred internal understanding that you’re showing it to absolutely no-one externally. But get a case or set of cases written so they’re clear, readable and true without having to worry about other considerations. If necessary, interview the people involved with a tape recorder so you can fully concentrate on what they’re telling you and ask questions that probe what really happened.
Then, when that’s done change your hat to that of a doctor; rewrite your Warts and All text as a sanitised version.
Change the client names, the product names, the industries.
No confidences betrayed, no clients made to look stupid. Transforming it in that way isn’t always a straightforward task but it’s much easier to do when you’re at least clear about what actually happened.
After you’ve written the sanitised version you are free to go one step further.
The hat you need now is a dramatist and or teacher.
You can work backwards from what clients have started to ask the business for. This is the idealised version where you combine different elements of cases that you’ve successfully managed in the past and bring them together so demonstrate solving the problems of today.
Make up the presenting problem, roll two elements from different cases into one, exclude confusing subplots, streamline the story. Do what ever it takes so the story while not literally true is authentic. You may need to write a disclaimer for this, but your audience will usually understand this automatically anyway, just from the genre.
There may never have been a case exactly like this but all the essential features are your company’s bread and butter. The fluency with which you describe the cases communicates your mastery over all the issues, and that’s the real point of the writing.
You will need to give yourself some creative licence to do this, but it’s a good way of showing just how much knowledge your organisation really holds.
When you’ve finished this not only will you have a valuable new business tool for future business, it will also serve to educate new people starting today the triumphs of the past.
The nature of business and communications is that things are always changing fast and what was a shining example of state-of-the-art best practice just a couple of years ago can now look stale, tired and so last millenium.
This is always a problem when curating and re-writing your case studies. But there is a way around it.
You can use the past to engineer what your present or future offerings are, in a process you might think of as back to the future.
One very good demonstration of this can be seen on Mad Men. Agency creative genius Don Draper, played by John Hamm, narrates his moment of brilliance, a discussion with an ‘old pro’ called Teddy who tells him about the significance of nostalgia as a potent marketing tool. Draper shows the Eastman Kodak marketing team how he will (note future tense) make their brand famous using a technique from the past. That’s if his agency is lucky enough to win the Kodak business.
So it’s a sort of case study narrated for the future, for the purposes of winning the pitch.
Draper: “Teddy told me that in ancient Greek, nostalgia is the pain of ancient wound”
Strategy: We’re going to use a little known approach (nostalgia) to do the opposite of what everyone else will do. Hence giving us a market advantage.
Draper:” It’s not called the Wheel, it’s called the Carouselle,”
Strategy” It’s not about adult technology or sophistication, it’s about a return to childhood simplicity”
In David Attenborough’s short trailer he demonstrates how to launch an argument and sell in documentary in just a few powerful seconds. If you’ve done the Copycourse you’ll recognise the structure he uses a mile off.
David Attenborough: I am David Attenborough and I am 93. I ‘ve had the most extraordinary life. It’s only now that I appreciate how extraordinary. The living world is a unique and spectacular Marvel. Yet the way we humans live on earth is sending it into a decline. Human beings have over run over the world. We are replacing the wild with the tame.
This film is my witness statement about my vision for the future. The story about how we came to make this, our greatest mistake. How if we act now we can yet to put it right. Our planet is heading for disaster. You need to learn how to work rather nature rather than against it. And I’m going to tell you how. In cinemas 2020.