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How to write a case study that wins hearts and minds

If you work in music, arts or a not-for-profit organisation you’ll know that telling an individual’s story can be far more powerful than facts and figures. Statistics, research and evaluation measures are invaluable to evidence our impact. But a case study – in the form of a story – makes those facts meaningful and brings your work to life.

Case studies are an important part of evaluating your work too. They can help you and others to understand whether, and how, you achieved your outcomes. They can help you explore what worked well and what didn’t work so well; how, and why.

In this blog I’m focusing on written case studies: but many of the same principles apply to video too. I’ll be writing about briefing a videographer/film-maker in a future blog.

Before you start:

Be clear on the purpose of the case study, and who your intended readers are.

For impact case studies, it’s usual to focus on the difference you made – leaving out ‘what didn’t work so well’. But some funders/stakeholders may genuinely want to understand the successes and failures. So it’s possible to write with both evaluation and impact communication in mind.

In some cases, you may be writing a case study to share practice within your sector. For example, the UK charity Youth Music asks all the organisations they fund to write a practice-sharing blog on their ‘Youth Music Network’.

I’ve tried to cover all possibilities here, but what you choose to focus on will depend on your purpose and your audience.

The title:

This should draw the reader in, give them a hint about what they’re going to read. Ideally, use a descriptive title – more than just the name of the person or project. It could hint at the transformation or impact – ie ‘Jack learns to trust others and cope with his anger’. Or it could be a quote or a lyric.

Your first paragraph/introduction:

This needs to gain the reader’s interest and attention, give a hint of why they should be interested, and/or give the essence of the story. It could start with how the person was when you first met them – how they presented themselves, behaved, and what situation they were in. In the case of emotional/behavioural/mental health, you could describe what it seemed they were telling the world.

The main body: telling the story step-by-step

The main body of the copy tells the story, usually in chronological order. How was the person at the start, what happened then, what happened next, what changed for them, why did it change, how did that show? Remember that case studies for evaluation or impact communications should be a story of change.

  1. What were they struggling with or what change were you/they wanting to make?
  2. How did they behave, present themselves, at the start, at points during the programme/your involvement with them, and by the end?
  3. How were they with you, other people?
  4. How did you encourage/support their involvement?
  5. You may want to write something about your practice/approach – what were you actually doing, what role did you play? Can you describe or explain it using an example?
  6. What did they do in the sessions / during their time with you?
  7. In what ways did change happen and how did you see it?
  8. Were there setbacks along the way, and how were those overcome?

Ending the story

How can you conclude the story – where are they at/how did you leave them? Are they more able to cope, and if so how? Your story should ideally end positively but it’s important to be honest. A person’s problems won’t all have been solved by the project, but you can acknowledge this, and there should be a clear sense of progress.

What else should a case study include?  

  • Language should be clear, factual and avoid adjectives (wonderful, heartfelt, tear-jerking). That’s not to say it shouldn’t be emotional – but the emotion should come from the story or the quotes.
  • If you’re writing for advocacy, use the principles of persuasive writing and storytelling.
  • Try to include your key messages, and/or descriptions that showcase your way of working (your ‘practice’) and if you have one, your theory of change.
  • It can help to offer more than one point of view, eg young person’s teacher, other young people. If you can remember direct quotes/situations that happened, that will add colour.
  • It’s helpful to break up the text with short headings if you can.
  • To add colour and interest, make use of any materials you’ve collected. For example, in a songwriting project you may have some of that person’s lyric, or may have jotted down something they said at some point.
  • Think about visuals – whether you’re posting the case study online, or printing it in a booklet or handout, photos and images can capture a reader’s attention and help reinforce your messages.
  • If you’re using the case study to advocate your work to people who might buy or commission your services, you could consider adding a section about cost effectiveness. For example, if you can show that your programme helps people to reduce their GP visits or reduce their medication, you could work out the potential savings for a health funder. This is complex though and it’s important not to overclaim.

Gaining permissions  

Finally but importantly, if you’re likely to release the case study publicly, make sure you have suitable permission from the subject.

Ask them if they’re happy for you to write about your work with them (you may need to interview them too). Once it’s written, ask them (and their parent/carer if they’re under 18) to read the case study and complete a permission form for the case study and any photographs.   

View and download a comprehensive permission form from The Children’s Society

Read guidance from the NSPCC about consent for photographing young people

It’s a good idea to give people the option to have their case study anonymised. Also make sure to explain that you may condense and edit the text, but you won’t alter the story and the meaning. This gives you the ability to edit to fit your format when you come to design and publish the case study.

 Need inspiration? You’ll find some examples here:

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    […] How to write a case study that wins hearts and minds […]

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