Don’t Let “Corporate Pride” Ruin Your Case Studies

November 7, 2012 by

I survived a delicate moment with a new client recently.

I had just delivered my final draft of a case study. My client was pleased with it, calling it "beautifully written." Her CEO had expressed his gratitude, as well. We were just waiting for input from one last C-level exec.

That's when things got awkward. My draft came back riddled with mark-ups.

Now, don't get me wrong. I welcome feedback. And many of this exec's comments were excellent. He had come up with some terrific word choices that hadn't occurred to me or my editor. He even improved my headline and one of my subheads – always big improvements, as good headlines and subheads draw the attention of scanners.

Unfortunately, along with the good, there was also a big dose of bad.

What I call the "bad comments" all did one bad thing, which is my topic today. They changed references to my client's company from the third person (they) to the first person (we). This executive wanted his company to do the talking...

Not a good idea for a case study.

Why "vendor viewpoint" case studies are a bad idea

Like I said, these comments created an awkward situation for me. I didn't want to embarrass one of my client's senior executives and thus create a potentially awkward situation for her. But I also didn't want to do my client a disservice by letting her colleague's "corporate pride" reduce the selling power of her case study.

So, as tactfully as I could, I explained why writing in the first person – from the vendor's point of view – is not good practice when it comes to case studies. I gave three reasons. Here they are:

1. Writing in the first person is fraught with peril.

When we write in the first person, we shift our spotlight away from our subject – our customer's success – and onto ourselves. Lengthy tracts in the first person can sound like bragging or, worse yet, like we're giving an opinion rather than stating facts. We risk coming off like that bore we've all met at a cocktail party, the one who goes on and on about himself and then says, "Oh, but enough about me. What do you think of my new Rolex?"

Writing experts caution that unless it is essential or clearly improves your piece, it's usually best to avoid the first-person perspective.

2. Case studies are a low-key form of marketing.

Case studies benefit from a journalistic approach. They are typically written from a third-party perspective, like a new story, because the neutral voice helps maintain a perception of objectivity. Repeated use of first-person pronouns calls attention to the fact that you're trying to sell the reader something. And that's not what you want in a case study.

A case study is not a brochure or advertisement. Salesman-like language can diminish its effectiveness.

3. Third-person reporting gets press.

Finally, if you want your case studies picked up by trade journals or industry Web portals, it's best to keep them in the third person. "Where objectivity – or at least the appearance of it – is important, the first person is discouraged or greatly restricted. This is especially true with newspapers and newsmagazines," says former New York Times Book Review editor Patricia T. O'Connor, author of the best-selling writing books Woe is I and Words Fail Me.

Editors are looking for objective news stories. And they don't want to spend time translating them from the first person to the third. Your press release – a condensed version of your case study – must be in the third person, or editors will ignore it. And having the full case study written from a third-party perspective increases the chances that it, too, will be picked up for publication.

Exceptions to the Rule

There are two exceptions to the "third person only" rule for case studies:

1. For salespeople only

The first is when you intend to use your case study primarily in sales training, for use in live sales presentations. If your company provided services or advice that contributed to your customer's success, you'll want to describe those contributions in the first person, using the pronoun "we." It's simply the most natural way for a salesperson to present the material.

2. First-person case studies

The second exception is what are called "first-person" case studies.

Hang on – I hear you object – didn't you just say we shouldn't write case studies in the first person?

Yes, but what I said was you shouldn't write case studies in the first person from the vendor's (your) perspective. A first-person case study tells a success story from the customer's point of view – in his or her own words – like an extended testimonial.

We'll talk more about the first-person case study and other "alternative" case study formats in next month's Technical Response.

Take-Away Points

1. Writing a case study in the first person – from the vendor's perspective – can sound boastful, calls attention to the marketing nature of the piece, and can turn readers off.

2. Writing case studies in the third person gives them the appearance of objectivity and the semblance of a news story, which makes them more attractive to both business readers and trade journal editors.

3. For case studies, the only times first-person writing is recommended, other than in direct quotes, are:

a. When the case study will be used only in live sales presentations, or

b. When the case study is written from the customer's perspective, in his or her own words.

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