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How to write case studies that boost your career

by Andrianes Pinantoan

Few people realize just how risky hiring is to a business.

Forget the hard financial cost, which by the way, can amount to thousands of dollars. By hiring you, your prospective boss is also taking:

  1. Personal risks:  What if you turn out to be a stalker? What if you’re a drunk, or someone with anger issues?
  2. Social risks: What if you turn out to be an embarrassment in social settings? What if you can’t stop talking about Star Wars or your cats?
  3. Professional risks: You do realize that your prospective employer is, to some extent, putting his/her job on the line for your career, right? Your boss probably has another boss to report to, and making a bad hire not only makes him look bad, the project he hired you for will also be delayed – sometimes by months.
  4. Cultural risks: And what if you’re not a cultural fit? What if you prefer to arrive at 9am and leave exactly at 5pm – never to be found again until the next day – while the culture of the company is to look at your results, not the time you spent in the office?

Case studies are like drawings on a cave wall. It tells a story so your future employers can go beyond short interviews.

And of course if a hire turns out to be a dud, they have to spend a couple thousand dollars just to repeat the cycle.

Now some of you are going to say that’s what an interview is for: to filter out the duds. But an interview lasts for just an hour or so, and most companies conduct two of them before they are expected to make the hire.

Let’s just say I have a carton of milk in my fridge that I had a longer relationship with. Imagine going on two one-hour blind dates with a person and expecting him/her to move in with you. No wonder employers are so picky when it comes to hiring!

That’s where case studies come in.

Case studies are like drawings on a cave wall. It tells a story so your future employers can go beyond the short interviews and resumes and get to know who you really are and what you are really capable of.

Before you claim that this is not applicable to you, know that almost any profession can benefit from writing a case study.

Doctors do it when they diagnose unique cases of a disease. Marketers use it to influence potential clients. Accountants use it to show what they did to lower taxes for their clients. Admins use it to show how they improved office productivity. And aged care workers use it to show how they handle difficult patients.

Unfortunately, writing a great case study is not something schools teach, and “career advisers” rarely, if ever, touch on the subject. Fret not though, because that’s exactly what this article is about.

Getting Started

What is the first step when you write an email? That’s right: Know who you are writing to. The same is true with case studies.

Defining who you’re writing to can be a bit tricky.

A useful technique professional case study writers like to use is to create an “audience persona”. A persona is a made-up character that represents your ideal audience. Be specific! For example, if your primary audience are corporate product managers, a case study relating to small businesses probably won’t interest them at all, even though both of these people are in business.

A useful technique professional case study writers like to use is to create an “audience persona”.

Once you identified who you are writing to, do your research and find out what their main concerns are – these will make up the main points of your case study. You can find some of these concerns by either

  1. Talking to the people you’d like to work for outside business hours.
  2. Follow them in popular social networking websites such as Twitter and Facebook and look at what they post.
  3. Browse through questions from people like them in popular Q&A websites such as Quora and other forums.
  4. Go to the blogs these people frequent and look at what they are interested in.

Problem Statement

Once you get a long enough list of popular concerns, go through each one of them and see if you have the experience to match that concern.

This is a tricky step, because if you get it wrong, the whole case study will not have as much impact as it otherwise would. So take your time.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself when you do this: Why does a client ask for what he asks for? A website designer often get the request to design “cutting edge” websites. But is that what the client really meant? Most clients don’t much care how their websites look. What they care about is their business’ bottom line.

So ask yourself at least 3 levels of “why”. For example:

  1. Why does he want a “cutting edge” website? Because he wants to look good to users.
  2. Why does he want to look good to users? Because he wants to build his brand.
  3. Why does he want to build his brand? Because he want to make more sales.

There you have it, now you have a problem statement: Client wants to increase sales out of his website. That’s your goal.

But in its present form, that’s a poor goal – how do you know when you’ve achieved it? Great goals are both timely and measurable. Using the previous example, a timely and measurable goal would look like this: Client to wants to raise raise sales on his website from 200 units a month to 300 units a month in 6 months.

Documenting What The Client Did

Don’t jump right in just yet! Every great problem solver starts with a strategic analysis first, and the first step is to know exactly what your employer/client did to get to this point.

At this step, you need to document things like:

  1. How did the client diagnose the issue? (There might not even BE an issue)
  2. What steps did they take to resolve it? Why? What was the theory behind those actions?
  3. What did they do to make sure the plan is executed correctly?
  4. What was the results of those trials? Results need to be concrete – that is it must involve hard numbers. For example, “get the word out” is not a concrete result.
  5. Did some of the trials work for a while? If so, why did it work for a while and what can you learn from that?
  6. If the trials didn’t work at all, why do you think it failed? Was it because the their theory was flawed, or was it poor execution?

When Rubber Meets The Road

Woman Winning

Perfect, now you have a theory about why the problem is there. This part of the case study is about your execution, and it includes things like:

  1. What quick wins did you identify?
  2. What were the business assets you identified and how did you leverage these assets to test your theory?
  3. How did you manage the possibility of failure?
  4. What unexpected roadblocks did you face?
  5. How did you adapt to these unexpected roadblocks?

Recording The Win

What were the results after your execution?

Now you’d think it’s quite straightforward to tell people of your achievements, but it’s not. There are ways to do it that amplify reality, and there are ways that don’t do it justice. Here are a few tips to achieve the former:

  1. First of all, you need to quantify all your claims. If you’re dealing with intangible factors like company morale, try doing a survey before and after your experiment.
  2. Whenever possible, use graphs to illustrate your point. A trend is best illustrated with a line graph, a comparison with a bar chart and proportion with a pie chart. These graphs allows you to convey your point without needing the reader of your case study to dive in.
  3. If your work involves something visual, like interior design, include a before-after photograph.
  4. Remember that all achievements are relative. Let’s say you wrote a book that sold 200 copies – is that good or bad? Well, that depends on who you compare it to. And it might not be fair to compare it to a New York Times bestseller if the book you wrote caters to a very small niche. This is why it’s crucial that you benchmark your competition and compare your achievements appropriately.
  5. Most importantly, do not short-sell yourself here! One of the most common things people in recording their achievements is to put down themselves by saying, “Yeah, but it’s a team effort.” That doesn’t show humility – it shows a lack of confidence. This doesn’t mean you should claim more credit than you’re due, however.
One of the most common things people in recording their achievements is to put down themselves by saying, “Yeah, but it’s a team effort.” That doesn’t show humility – it shows a lack of confidence.

Strike While The Iron Is Hot

This part is where most people fall flat on their faces. They did a great job doing every other part of the case study but they didn’t strike while the iron is hot: they didn’t include what marketers call a “call to action”. That is, what should the reader do next?

If you don’t include a “call to action”, your readers will simply close the file and say, “That was a good read.”

If you don’t include a “call to action”, your readers will simply close the file and say, “That was a good read.” If you want them to call you, here are a few ideas from leading case study writers:

  1. Can you offer a free consultation? This works even if you intend to work in the company as an employee, not a freelancer.
  2. Can you offer freebies to your readers? If you’re a writer, offer to write one free article to your future employer to get your foot in the door.
  3. Can you offer a discount to your readers? This works only if you’re a business. If you’re an employee, stress the other opportunities you’re considering.
  4. Do you have a website the reader can check out? Or perhaps more case studies to dig in? Link to them!

So there, 6 steps to a case study that can boost your career. At the end of the day, it can summed up as: what is the situation, how they got there, where you’re going to take them, how will you get there, and where did you end up?

Do you have a question? Leave a comment and I’ll get back to you!

Images by {ErinKphoto} and Apparena

3 Responses

  1. Mia says:

    Hi Andre!

    Can you please share an example or a link to one of a good case study presented to a potential client/employer? 🙂

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