If you follow a lot of marketing blogs, you’ve probably been seeing an awful lot about storytelling—so much so that if I were a client or prospect I’d be rolling my eyes right about now, thinking, “I sell [insert product type]...How much of a story could I possibly tell?”
Storytelling is creative writing; it’s taking information that’s ordinarily fairly dry (company capabilities, recommended action steps, the outline of a proprietary approach, a project description, etc.) and writing about it in a way that, well…tells a story. It’s giving life, context and meaning to facts.
The best way to demonstrate the difference is to show you an example of the information we’re often provided for a case study and compare it to the story version of those same facts. Read both and see if you don’t have a warmer, fuzzier feeling about the story compared to the original.
A Fact-Based Case Study:
A snack food manufacturer came to Acme looking to improve their snack coating system, a tumble drum coater that was used to add fat and flavoring to their snacks. The customer saw that the systems required a great deal of labor and downtime for these reasons:
The coatings being sprayed in the tumble drum included suspended solids, causing the spray nozzles to clog, and causing poor uniformity of the coating
The clogging caused backpressure, causing the pumps and valves supplying the coatings to fail
Atomized liquid from the open ends of the nozzles created a hazard on the floors in front of the drums, requiring cleaning throughout the day
The drum had no access point other than the end of the drum, so maintenance personnel had to physically enter the drum to clean parts
We replaced the existing drum with our XYZ system which eliminates spray nozzles, using spinning disks instead. The system has access doors along the entire length of the equipment so all areas are easily reached for cleaning.
Replacement of the existing system with the XYZ eliminated the safety hazard and reduced the time required for cleaning significantly. In addition, the uniformity of coating was improved.
There’s nothing really wrong with that case study, other than there’s nothing for readers to connect to – nothing that draws them in and allows them to “see” what’s going on. When we get a case study like this, we first ask the client to talk to the people responsible for the work that was done and to those who benefitted from it. These people are usually excited about the solution and the resulting savings/reductions/enhancements and can provide details and perspectives that turn even the dullest stuff into a real story.
Here’s how the story could be told after hearing from a few of the people involved in the project:
That Same Case Study, Told As A Story
“Six months ago, Bob Smith’s phone rang. As head of sales at Acme, he was pretty quick to pick it up. On the other end was a prospect he’d talked to for months about our XYZ equipment. “Bob, we just had another worker injure himself slipping on spray from our tumble drum. I think it’s about time we talked about your XYZ system.”
The customer was already using another piece of Acme equipment on one of its lines and had good success, but Bob hadn't yet convinced him that an XYZ could save the company both time and money and improve product quality.
The Customer’s Issue
Bob talked to the customer in greater depth about the problem and got an overview of the primary issues with their tumble drum. Those included:
Poor uniformity. Consistent quality is key in food products, yet tumble drums that use spray nozzles often clog, resulting in patchy coating on this particular snack.
Pump and valve failure. The same clogging that cause patchy coating also creates backpressure on pumps and valves, causing them to periodically fail.
Safety hazard. Atomized liquid coming from the open ends of the nozzles creates a significant hazard on the floors in front of the drums, necessitating thorough cleanings throughout the day.
Time-consuming, inefficient cleaning. This particular tumble drum was designed with only one access point: the end of the drum. That meant that maintenance personnel had to physically enter the drum to clean parts.
Here’s how Bob describes Acme’s initial inspection of the company’s problem equipment:
“When we walked into the customer’s plant we immediately saw the sheen – it was almost a pool – caused by the atomized spray from the drum; it’s no wonder they were concerned. Then we looked at product quality…the quality of the actual spray onto the food…and it was clumping and sparse in spots. Beyond that there was also the fact that to do any repairs, a maintenance person actually had crawl right into that drum to get at trouble spots. We looked at the footprint, which was somewhat unusual, and decided we could modify an existing design somewhat to customize for this site.”
What’s so special about the XYZ design – and the reason it could eliminate or significantly mitigate the issues the customer was facing – were the disks. The XYZ uses spray disks, not nozzles, to apply fats, flavorings and other coatings. The disks spin at xxx rpm, evenly dispersing the coatings without the need for a spray nozzle…”
See how that works? The second version of that case study does a few things the first does not: it includes a human perspective, and its approach is conversational and “real.” Same facts, but told in a way that gets the reader more involved – and interested – in what’s going on. Think of storytelling as the difference between reading a tedious, fact-based report and reading a great book that includes dialogue, perspectives from the characters involved, and a richness that almost makes you feel you’re there. Which would you rather crack open?