The idea that storytelling is an important part of the sales process is nothing new (in fact, if you’d like to read more on the subject, I’ve included three good sources at the end of this post).

Successful advertising agencies tell stories all day everyday on behalf of their clients – great stories about brands that capture the imagination. Ironically, this skill often doesn’t get translated when the agency writes its own case studies. I’ve observed an almost contradictory tendency to say too much without ever really getting to the most important point. Here’s an example, paraphrased from countless case studies I’ve seen from my clients (names changes to protect the innocent):

Challenge: No-name Burger was a fast growing restaurant chain that only had one company owned franchise. Our assignment as the new agency was to evolve the brand and build consensus among a disgruntled collection of franchisees. We just completed their first major research initiative across 30 markets and with 5000 consumers.   

It’s a bit of an info dump; I’m not sure what to pay attention to. But I get what the writer was trying to achieve. Every detail seems important and the editing process can bring on mental paralysis. So let’s break this down into a few simple steps:

1. What’s the most important message in the paragraph? What is the “struggle between expectation and reality,” in the words of screenwriting coach Robert McKee? Remember, this section sets up the story that is to follow. What info is truly relevant to setting up the challenge?       

Answer: No-name’s brand was under performing and the franchisees were fuming about it.

2. What other details help to add dimension and tension to the story?

Answer: With the exception of one company-owned restaurant, No-name is a franchised business that is almost 100% reliant on the success of the franchise owners. If the folks back at corporate don’t support them, the whole business suffers. Related to this, it also means the agency has multiple masters that they have to please.

3. Can anything be eliminated that doesn’t support the first two?

Answer: Yes, the reference to the research study. While important, it doesn’t belong here. How did it end up here in the first place? My hunch is that the writer, probably the account person, honestly felt that this giant pile data represented an enormous challenge to the agency team. But, while it was going to require a lot of work to interpret, that study was actually part of the solution, not part of the problem, and should come later in the story.

After going through steps 1-3, here’s my edited version:

No-name Burger is an innovative restaurant concept that quickly carved a niche for itself in the competitive quick serve category. But, after rapid expansion, No-name was experiencing growing pains. Its brand advertising was under performing and the franchisees, who make up, 99% of No-Name’s ownership, were feeling disgruntled and impatient.

I might start the next section this way:

We wanted to know more about the No-Name fans who were so instrumental to the chain’s early success, so our research team conducted a comprehensive study – the first in No-Name’s history – that covered 30 markets and almost 5,000 consumers. What we discovered… [insight goes here].

This paragraph immediately starts to tell the reader how the agency sprung into action to solve the problem. It also provides a way to talk about an important capability – research – in a seamless and relevant way.

To go deeper, here are a few good reads on how to incorporate storytelling into your proposals and presentations:

Harvard Business Review’s 2003 interview with renowned screenwriting coach, Robert McKee

The Art of the Pitch by Peter Coughter

Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath