How to write badly (6): Creating a terrible case study

Back in June 2012, I started an informal series of blog posts about the skill of writing badly. Given all the effort so many writers invest in ensuring a dismal outcome, it is unfortunate that there is only very little helpful guidance available to them. Most of the resources available single-mindedly and with a degree of thoughtlessness focus on making writing better. Two comments: They work as well as the bumper stickers that advocate for “Free Tibet” or other good causes. Also, very few people want that. Evidence shows that far more writers have an interest in truly awful results and would benefit from practical support in achieving them, especially in the fields of corporate and technology writing.

Take the time to prepare and don't shy away from using all your bad ideas on one project. There will be more where they came from.

Take the time to prepare and don’t shy away from using all your bad ideas on one project. There will be more where they came from.

It might be helpful to treat some typical output formats more thoroughly. Consider the business case study (as opposed to the medically flavored alternate, which has its own opportunities for badness). Go ahead and skip the rest of this paragraph if you’re familiar with the darn things. Companies spend many millions to produce case studies. Most often they are the result of a writer’s intuitive misapplication, although there is also a burgeoning video channel for them. For the most part, a case study is intended to impress upon readers that real customers use a company’s products or services to their advantage. Project managers and writers work hard to identify and interview willing customers, shepherd them through an interview, obtain approval for the drafts, publish them online, print them on paper if their budgets are too large, and try to keep them alive before they become obsolete. Case study writers often obsess over representing the authentic voice of the customer and truthfully portraying how a service or product helps a company achieve something worthwhile.

As regards infernal writing, the case study industry is generally in fine shape. Many of the stories companies publish—usually expensive and requiring lots of effort—are terrible. They sound alike and canned, are not convincing, show redundant repetitiveness, and insult readers by patronizing them. Many writers, however, are not aware of the many worst practices available to them, which needlessly restricts their effectiveness. Here are some tips and tricks you might want to try.

Misdirection. Many writers send their respondents a list of questions or even a full-fledged questionnaire to prepare for the interview. To make sure the interview does not become overly productive, let them have the questions beforehand. But don’t mention them in the conversation. Ask your respondents about other topics and hope they did not prepare for them.

Stuffing. Boring the reader to tears gets you well on the way to abysmal awfulness. Good for you that case studies offer lots of opportunities to do just that. Many case study writers already know that blatantly bland statements about industries and markets are very effective. “Like many businesses in its industry, XYZ Company found it needed to grow through change in order not to lose customers and market share.” You can get much worse by discussing the people you interview and quote. Nobody cares where they went to school, which degrees they have, what organizations they belong to, how old they are, what they wear, where they worked before, and whether they like Zinfandel better than Zappa. As the born bad storyteller you are, you can make use of all that padding. If you’re really clever, you sneak it under a section heading that promises more relevant content, and readers won’t even know what happened to them as they pass out.

Aggressive foreshadowing. In an early part of the story, you talk about issues and challenges the company faced. Later, you repeat the same content, but now you modify the statements to say that they achieved or resolved these things with your client’s product or service. If you stay as close as you can to the original description, nobody will believe a word, because they know you’re tailoring your facts. Perfect!

Uninteresting and unhelpful quotes. When you quote people, try not to make them sound too real or specific, because that would add credibility and interest to the case study. You can go over the top in at least a couple of ways, by including overly enthusiastic as well as negatively trending statements.

Too positive assertions are annoying to read, make company and customer look silly, and prompt readers to groan. So use them. Some customers have natural talent for this. All you have to do is make their words sound a little more pretentious. If, “The new accounting software helps us avoid errors and stops us from losing money, which means we won’t go bankrupt,” is too mild, tart it up: “At the end of the day, our magnificent new accounting solution enables the company’s strategic viability for the long term by facilitating comprehensive error prevention and eliminating the dramatic losses we experienced in the past. People simply love working with this product.”

If you feel like adding a dash of sobriety to such excessive enthusing, you get bonus points for having quoted parties insinuate that the product or service wasn’t all that. “We believe the product helped us become more effective in our customer outreach, although we were not able to measure any results,” is not bad. Something like, “We gave the service a try and it delivered well for a while, but then our needs changed and we dropped it,” also has its attractions. If you are more of a risk-taker, try to incorporate some outright negativity. “The cost of the software was quite high, and some people never got the hang of it, but it gave us much of what we looked for.” Or: “The asset maintenance service was often prompt, but we still had a few unexpected breakdowns.”

Badmouthing competitors. Few things ruin a company’s and its customer’s standing and credibility faster than a complete misstatement regarding a competing offering. If the customer discusses a leading financial software product and you can get away with a quote to the tune of, “We considered [name of competitor product, but found it couldn’t do many of the complex calculations we need,” that’s golden.

Frivolous descriptions. If you want to beef up the word count and make the story a little less interesting, you can always describe random details of the product or service the customer used. It helps make things worse if they are not in any obvious relationship to the customer’s issues or achievements. If a software or hardware product was deployed, you can create some additional confusion around the process, how long it took, and how well users took to the new tools.

Horrendous results. Some good customers spend their budget on an expensive product or service and cannot point out that anything meaningful has changed. These case studies practically write themselves. However, most companies accomplish something or other. You may need to get creative here, because this might be the most interesting and convincing part of your story. What works well to achieve a bad outcome is if you can highlight minor achievements, such as small savings of time or money. “We save a couple of hours every quarter using this product,” will do nicely, for example. Also, try to direct attention toward irritating, irrelevant aspects of the story. “The outsource IT service employees wear elegant, branded shirts, which helps identify them to employees, and they have created mostly positive relationships with our people,” is reasonably bad. If you cannot get around pointing out significant improvements, you should try to temper them. “We achieved 100% return on investment in six months, although not everybody agrees with that—some people always resist change,” shows the right touch. “We found many new efficiencies in our processes, although many of those were well underway before we got [product]”: nice job. If the customer did not need certain employees anymore because of the fabulous new efficiencies, don’t worry about “reassigning resources” or the like. The case study will be much worse if you simply say people were fired.

If you follow all or most of these simple worst practices, your customer success stories will always be bad enough to infuriate readers. Promise!

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Filed under bad writing, business, communications, content marketing, customer evidence, marketing, story telling, writing

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