Executive Communications

This Classic Storytelling Formula Can Make Your Case Studies Sing


Most aspiring writers don’t set out with dreams of authoring case studies.

But if you’ve been forced to shelve your idea for the great American novel in order to write copy that helps put food on your table, case studies offer an opportunity to use the classic storytelling elements you learned in creative writing class.

That’s because the best case studies rely on the same narrative arc found in most great literature: a protagonist faces a significant challenge, identifies a solution, and then lives happily ever after. 

Humans are hard-wired to relate to stories built like this, which is why even in our hyper-wired, attention-span-of-a-gnat age, a good case study can still break through the clutter.

With that in mind, consider approaching your next case study in three acts:

Act I: The hero of your story faces a vexing problem. The more detail and drama you can infuse into this section, the better. As with any great story, your goal is simple: to get your readers to empathize with your hero, and see elements of their own journey in the story they’re reading.

Act II: The second act provides the climax to your tale. After struggling mightily under the weight of the challenge—and perhaps unsuccessfully trying several fixes—the hero finds the answer. For your case study, that solution comes in the form of the services, products or advice that you offer.

Act III: The final section of your case study highlights how life is good since your hero found the right solution to their problem. Provide specific details and data to highlight the success, as well as quotes that provide insight why the solution proved to be the right fix—and how it has spawned positive change. In essence, this is your hero’s “happily ever after.”

Along the way, you can also use some other storytelling tricks, such as foreshadowing, to help add complexity and texture to your tale.

You might not be following in the footsteps of Hemingway or Tolstoy, but case studies give you a chance to showcase your storytelling skills in ways that help support your mission and achieve your goals.

3 Secrets to a Great CEO Letter

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With the fourth quarter in the books, corporate annual report season is now in full swing. Of course, the heart and soul of that report is the CEO letter to shareholders.

There’s a lot riding on this letter. It’s a once-a-year opportunity for a CEO to speak directly to key target audiences to share his or her insights on the achievements, performance and challenges of the previous year. It also offers a platform to lay out the strategic vision for the future, and how your organization aims to execute, grow, and make the most of new opportunities.

You don’t have to work at a public company—or even in the corporate world for that matter—to learn from a good CEO letter to shareholders. Many of the elements of a strong letter can be useful to leaders everywhere, whether they are running a non-profit, foundation, school, or government entity.

Here’s three keys to making a CEO letter sing:

Start with the end in mind: A good CEO letter can succeed—or fail—before a word is ever written. How? By not taking the time to think through what you are trying to achieve. More specifically, what do you want your audience to be thinking, feeling, and maybe even doing, after they have read the letter? Working backwards from there will keep you on track for what you're trying to accomplish. Thinking through the various ways you might leverage your annual report on an ongoing basis can help focus your thinking as well.

Find the right voice: Whether your CEO is partnering with a ghostwriter or crafting a first draft, make sure a tone is struck that authentically conveys who he or she really is. If the CEO has a folksy nature then let that shine through in the letter. On the other hand, if he or she is more button-down and straightforward, the writing should reflect that. It’s not only about tone, but also style. I worked with a CEO who was a natural and gifted storyteller so it made sense to weave some relevant personal anecdotes into his letter. Another CEO I worked with was a no-nonsense number cruncher so including a personal story would have seemed forced and disingenuous. Each of those CEOs had distinct approach and strengths that were effectively conveyed through the tone and style of letter.

Tell the story behind the numbers: There are plenty of financials and data that occupy page after page of an annual report. They certainly serve a valuable purpose. Yet your CEO doesn’t need to cram them all in the letter. A better approach is to turn to the old journalism maxim of 'show don’t tell.' Describe in concrete ways what some key numbers mean—and how they are making a difference. So if you’re a bank that experienced a 40% increase in commercial lending, focus on how that came to life in the form of a plant expansion that kept contractors hammering away for six months and 30 local people landing good-paying jobs.

Don’t sugar-coat: Authenticity and transparency. You might want to post those words somewhere you can readily see them. More than ever, they are the foundation to building strong connections and trust with your audience. Obviously, your core aim is to highlight your organization’s strengths, success and potential. And you absolutely should tell that story in the most effective way possible. Yet your credibility regarding your achievements is directly tied to your ability and willingness to acknowledge challenges—and, at times, admit mistakes. Take a problem-solver approach to addressing major challenges, and lay out your plan to deal with them moving forward. Your audience will recognize your candor and reward you for it.

A good CEO letter can build confidence and trust in your organization, position your CEO as a thought leader, and set the tone for a promising future. Make sure it’s not an opportunity lost.

Knock it out in November: Make Your Messages Matter in a Noisy Month

Image: Troye Owens via Flickr Creative Commons

Image: Troye Owens via Flickr Creative Commons

We’re just one days away from a mid-term election that’s drawing Presidential-cycle like attention in many parts of the country.

With that in mind, the next week or so is going to be pretty noisy, so plan your media outreach and messaging accordingly. 

Here's our quick guide to navigating the month ahead.

A Takeaway from the Campaign Trail
Election Day will reveal who will control the House and Senate. But its results will also help communicators get insights into who won the messaging war.

We’ve been providing communications support for a highly-watched House race and have already learned some timely lessons from this year's race.  I’ll be doing a more in-depth blog with some key takeaways after the votes are counted, but for now here’s a nugget that has relevance to all communicators trying to engage their audience:

Pitch the story, not the policy: Never underestimate the power of a compelling personal story. We found a highly effective approach to addressing a policy issue is to find ways to frame it with an authentic story. For instance, the candidate we’re working with lost his father at a very young age. His mother who had never worked outside her home, had to re-invent herself to provide for her three kids. Fortunately, Social Security offered a bridge that allowed her to keep her home and her family together. When told in this context, the candidate’s support for protecting Social Security takes on real, authentic meaning—and sticks with those who heard the story. 

Here are some other trends to watch as we move deeper into November:

Annual Reports: The Clock is Ticking
We’re a month into the fourth quarter – with the holiday season just a few short weeks away. If you’re involved with creating your organization's annual report, now is the time to start laying the groundwork for a smooth process and a stellar product. Here’s some recent advice about why now is the time to get to work

The Hard Sell is Getting Harder
A new study on brand supports the pressing need for organizations identify and promote their purpose rather than trying to force-feed their messages to consumers.

The 2018 Edelman Earned Brand study encouraged brands to connect their purpose with a relevant moment in culture as well as to confront a controversial issue that has direct impact on stakeholders and customers.

The study found that 64% of consumers identify as belief-driven buyers—a 13% jump from last year. Further, 84% of respondents said they noticed a brand communication when it engaged their attention compared to 16% who noticed it when it interrupted their attention. 

While these findings were focused on businesses, they are also relevant  nonprofits, particularly as they aim to capture their audiences attention ahead of Giving Tuesday on Nov. 27. 

Giving Tuesday and Small Business Saturday
Speaking of Giving Tuesday, November offers nonprofits a great hook for telling their stories in the media — and for connecting with their supporters. The same is true for small businesses with Small Business Saturday.

Ideally, you’ve already mapped out your communications and media strategy for these events.

But if you haven’t, it’s not too late.

Our team is happy to help you build a lightweight campaign this month — with an eye for how you can build relationships that will have lasting value in 2019 and beyond.

Contact me to learn more!

How to Write Op-Eds That Change the Conversation

A well-placed op-ed can help you call attention to an important issue or change minds about a controversial topic.

How to Write Op-Eds Whitepaper

The explosive op-ed written by a senior member of the Trump administration that was published this week in The New York Times is an extreme example.

But op-eds can also be incredibly useful for nonprofits and companies that are looking to inspire action in local and national markets.

Op-eds explained

Unlike reported news stories, op-eds are opinion pieces written by those who aren’t on the staff of a newspaper, magazine or website. They offer outside voices the opportunity to express opinions and share ideas in their own words.

Traditionally, they appear opposite the editorial page (hence the name, op-ed), which is where the newspaper’s editorial board expresses its opinion on important issues.

Why op-eds matter

While newspapers don’t quite carry the same influence they once did, op-eds can nonetheless be valuable tools for those looking to raise awareness about a problem or issue.

In fact, one could argue that op-eds have more influence than ever.

That’s because a published op-ed not only appears in the newspaper, it also appears online, which gives you the opportunity to point to it on your own site, in blog posts, and through social media.

But, as is the case with pitching stories, it’s a challenge to get news outlets to run your opinion piece.

Newspapers and other outlets only have the resources and space to run a limited number of op-eds. As result, competition for these pieces can be fierce.

How can you get your opinion published?

We've helped a number of organizations and individuals write and place high-impact op-eds -- and we've learned a few tricks along the way to maximize our odds of getting these pieces published.

Download this free e-book to learn our 5-step process for writing and placing op-eds that change minds and inspire action.