The New Yorker: why Boston’s hospitals were ready

This fantastic story in the New Yorker should be an inspiration to B2B case study writers everywhere.

Ambulance by andrewmalone

Original image by Andrew Malone

On our recent podcast, Emily and I were talking about how to make enterprise technology case studies better. One way is to ditch the boring 15-bullet-points-and-a-customer-quote approach and make the case study a gripping story of resourceful humans prevailing in adverse conditions.

Anyone keen to try this approach should blue-tack this New Yorker article by Atul Gawande to their wall as inspiration for how to tell that kind of story well.

(I hope you’ll forgive me using an account of such a dreadful event to make a relatively trivial point about case studies. Anyone who wants to be a better writer should spend time studying outstanding examples of writing, and this is certainly one.)

It has everything I think a good B2B tech case study should have:

A recognisable context: just about everyone in the Western world had heard the news and seen the footage of the horror and chaos caused by the Boston marathon bombings. Everyone could picture the scene and relate to the severe and unexpected challenge outlined in the story.

Multiple perspectives:  no single individual knew why Boston’s hospitals responded to the situation as well as they did. It needed lots of different people to relate their part in the day’s events, and for an expert writer to weave those stories together to create the full picture of what happened.

People at the centre: At heart, this is a story about logistics, a topic that gets very few people fired up. But by showing how individual doctors, nurses, public servants and lawmakers played their part in responding to a horrific, urgent and completely unexpected situation, the story reveals the workings of an abstract, city-scale system from an emotive, human-scale perspective.

Everyday heroism:  The story shows how medical professionals and emergency services overcame the challenge (and, in doing so, saved the life of every single person wounded in the attack, apart from the three tragically killed at the scene) by understanding what needed to be done, and doing their job well.

Evidence of material improvement: People warm to stories about progress; about things being done faster, better, or more effectively. This story has some impressive numbers: of the more than 170 wounded, only three died. In war zones, the fatality rate among US personnel injured in bomb attacks is 10%, down from 25% due to improvements in battlefield medical assistance. In Boston, the rate was less than 2%. The US is getting better at saving the lives of victims of bomb attacks.

Of course the difference is that commercial case studies are supposed to “sell” a particular product or service. What’s missing from this story – because it’s journalism, not marketing literature – is any attempt to persuade the audience of the efficacy of a given product.

Yet technology is still there, playing a vital supporting role: medical teams learned of the bombings via Twitter and smartphone apps, an emergency order was placed with a hardware manufacturer, useful equipment was brought out of store.

In writing a commercial case study we would of course want to highlight the use of a given technology, but it’s how that technology helped people to succeed – and what role it played in the wider context – that makes the story readable and memorable.

So to recap, what can we, as copywriters, learn about writing case studies from this excellent article?

1. Put the story in context.

Make the situation and the challenge recognisable to the audience you’re writing for, so they can easily imagine it. That could mean putting it in the context of a widely-recognised industry trend or development, or a problem that lots of people encounter.

2. Look for the human side.

People like stories about other people, especially if they feel an affinity with them. Put the people you interview at the centre of your story, and have them tell it in their own words. Let them inspire other customers to follow the same path.

3. Speak to more than one person.

B2B technology projects are usually complicated affairs, involving many people at different stages. It’s rare that a single individual has the full picture. By interviewing several people involved, you can build up a truer picture of what’s been done and what makes it interesting.

4. Reveal the heroes.

A “hero” doesn’t have to be a lone individual doing impossibly brave things. (They don’t even have to be on a journey.) Every organisation has its heroes, getting things done, making things work, making things better and showing the way. Find them and tell their story.

5. Show improvement.

Get hard numbers to show progress, but they don’t have to be the main focus. Using them to support the story rather than lead it will make it more engaging to read.

Still a way to go for great case studies

It isn’t going to work every time. You may not get to speak to the right people at the customer. There may not be budget for the hours of research, preparation, interviewing, drafting and approvals that go into creating a truly great case story. Sometimes quantity will be preferable to quality, if you want to highlight a broad range of customers. And it’s rare to find a large organisation that’s willing to sign off on a warts-and-all story, even if it’s a really positive one.

But the ambition to create great studies should be there, all the same. I hope I’ll get the chance to write one as brilliant as the New Yorker’s.

If you need more ideas about how case studies can go further for your brand, have a look at these compelling storytelling techniques used by the National Maritime Museum.

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