Case study tip: the quickie character sketch

Heather Armstrong, photo by Rick Bucich via Flickr

It’s easy to forget that businesses are made of people. When you write a case study for a business book, blog post, or article, readers need to see those people as human. Here’s how to do that quickly without getting in the way of the story you’re telling.

People in business prose need to be relatable. The reader needs to identify with the CMO or call center staffer or customer that you’re describing. But you don’t want to go into too much detail. You need a quickie character sketch — just two or three sentences that allow us to see the businessperson or customer as a human being with a life.

To make this possible, start every case study interview with this question:

Can you tell me a little bit about your background, how you got into this position, and what makes you tick?

Then listen for a few minutes. Everyone wants to tell their story. You’ll also warm up the interviewee, which helps as you get into more difficult questions, like “Why do you think you failed the first time?” or “How much did this cost the company?”

What the quickie character sketch looks like

Here are some openers from case studies in my books. (Most of these are from collaborations with my coauthors Charlene Li, Ted Schadler, and Julie Ask, who share some of the credit for writing them.)

When Dooce rants, it’s sheer poetry. Breathtaking in honesty and scope, Dooce’s rants about motherhood have a quality people appreciate, especially other mothers. You do not want to be the target of one of those rants. Dooce is a 34-year-old woman named Heather Armstrong. In August of 2009 she reached the end of her tether. (Empowered)

Rick Clancy seemed worried. Rick is a fifty-ish, powerful-looking man with graying hair and, until today, a confident manner that always reflected his control of the situation. In his role as head of communications for Sony Electronics, we’d seen him deal with tough business reporters, nasty competitors, product recalls, and more than one cranky company CEO, all with grace and confidence. (Groundswell)

Michael Sohn was on his second day of waiting, in the rain, in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. Michael is a German living in Berlin and a Catholic, but he was not in the Vatican as a tourist. He was there with his 16-megapixel digital camera to do his job, which was to get a photograph of the next pope for his employer, the Associated Press (AP). (The Mobile Mind Shift)

[Diane Hessan] told me about a team of people who were working late on a proposal for a client and asked to run the proposal by her. It wasn’t quite up to snuff. Before offering her opinion, she asked, “Do you want to know what I really think?” The room burst out laughing because everyone knew they didn’t have a choice. “That was a turning point,” Hessan told me. She realized that a reputation for frankness was part of her success. (Writing Without Bullshit)

Sona Chawla is used to finding creative ways around obstacles. Originally from India, she wanted to go to college in the US and study computer science and math. Her parents insisted she choose an all-women’s college. Her solution: attend the well-respected women’s college Wellesley in suburban Boston but supplement her coursework at MIT nearby in Cambridge. . . . To her, the boundary between “women’s school” and “co-ed institution” was irrelevant, so she found a way around it. (The Mobile Mind Shift)

Lynn Perry has cancer. In fact, he has three forms of terminal cancer: prostate cancer, which spread to the bones; lung cancer; and cancer of the epiglottis. The treatments to his throat give him a hoarse, smoky voice like a country singer, which fits pretty well since he’s a Harley-riding, keyboard-playing ex-engineer from Plano, Texas. (Groundswell)

Rob Sharpe is a do-it-yourself guy. He likes to build stuff; he remodeled his own kitchen and built a deck on his house. So it’s no surprise that he’s a 15-year veteran employee of Black & Decker, a company that makes power tools. And it’s no surprise that when it came time to improve the way Black & Decker trains its sales staff, Rob Sharpe figured out a perfect do-it-yourselfer’s solution. (Empowered)

If you have a caricature in your head of a new-age Internet entrepreneur, Kevin [Rose] probably fits it. He started his company, Digg, at age 27. At the time of our interview, he sported a day’s growth of beard and a worn gray-green T-shirt. When he speaks, you hear the familiar slacker cadences of Keanu Reeves. But if you listen, you realize this guy is sharp. Really sharp. (Groundswell)

In Tahoe, Tony Fadell was building the most connected, greenest, most modern home he knew of. It was going to be as connected and modern as he could make it. As the author of hundreds of patents and the leader of the team at Apple that created the first iPod, he was curious, technologically sophisticated, and fanatical about detail. One of those details was particularly galling to him. The thermostats were unsophisticated. “What was wrong with them? They were ugly.” That how he described it . . . (The Mobile Mind Shift)

If you write business books or articles, this is the fun part. Don’t leave it out in an attempt to sound more formal and professional. It doesn’t take long to turn the people in your case studies into humans, and it makes all the difference in whether their story hits home with your readers.

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One Comment

  1. When I create customized training content for my facilitation skills and virtual leadership workshops, I get lost in creating character sketches for my case studies. They have a way of bringing the stories to life – especially the highly dysfunctional people who seem to derail every meeting. Wish I could just write these character sketches all day long! It seems to satisfy (for now) my need to become a novelist, in some small way. Your character profiles were succinct, illuminating, and made me want to read more.