In my last post on breaking out of the traditional “challenge + solution + benefits” case study, I talked a bit about setting the scene for your readers.
A customer reference article is just that—a written piece about a real customer, with a real working environment. In other words, your products or services are being used in a location. I think sometimes we get too caught up in the what and how in our stories that we forget to describe the where.
Can you imagine reading a story without a setting? What’s left of one of the great opening paragraphs in literature if you remove Hemingway’s scene description from A Farewell to Arms?
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village. Troops went by the house. The leaves fell early that year. After the troops were gone, the road was bare except for the leaves.
Hemingway describes that scene so you can hear the river moving over those pebbles. You can feel the dust rising in the air from the soldiers’ boots. You can see the empty road littered with leaves after the troops are gone. You get it—you’re right there with the narrator.
Okay, okay, enough geeking out on Hemingway.
While your case studies might not be the next great American novel, your readers are looking for many of the same things they are while reading literature: believable characters, interesting plot, challenging obstacles—and a setting in which all of this takes place.
So, how can you give your readers a descriptive case study that will make them feel they’re right there beside you?
Here are a few ideas:
1. Use your senses (or someone else’s).
- If you were walking around the customer site, what would you see? Storage silos that tower over the employees below? A massive stacker-reclaimer moving coal into precisely measured rows?
- What would you smell? Okay, maybe don’t use this one to describe a wastewater treatment facility, but how about a cereal manufacturer?
- What would you feel? The heat radiating off a kiln in a coal-fired power plant? The smooth stockpiles of sand refined from a quarry?
Even if you haven’t physically been on site, ask these questions of your product manager, salesperson, or customer. The more you can appeal to a reader’s senses, the richer your story and the more readers will engage with your heroes (namely, your company’s technicians or salespeople who eased your customer’s pains).
2. Get on site, whenever possible.
Put on your safety boots and hardhat, and get out there! While asking the right questions will help you write great stories from the comfort of your cubicle, there is no better way to amp up your descriptive abilities than actually seeing, hearing, smelling the application environment you’re writing about.
The added bonus to getting on site is that you can now follow the process and see how your company’s products are actually working in the field. Watching how that ultrasonic level controller helps transform sludgy wastewater into clean, sparkling effluent is so much more than you can imagine from your office chair.
It also gives you a better sense of the customer’s business and the operators and technicians who work there—more great material to help flesh out your story.
3. Bring it back to the reader.
How big is a 30-meter silo? Can you really visualize how tall that is—and how much of a hassle it would be for operators to climb all the way up it in the middle of winter to fix a malfunctioning radar instrument?
And if you can’t picture it, can your readers?
If someone reading your case study can’t truly understand your customer’s pain, how can they grasp what a success your product is in the application?
So, with every description in your case study—if a reader can’t immediately visualize how big/heavy/hot/etc. something is, you need to compare it to something relatable for them.
- A piece of equipment that’s as big as a school bus?
- Five Olympic-sized swimming pools’ worth of liquid flowing through a pipe every day?
- A circuit board as thin as a sheet of paper?
At the end of the day, with better scene setting, readers can better engage with your writing: with your staff, your products, and your company as a solution provider. And isn’t that what we all want from our case studies?