Telling your science impact story: 5 tips for crafting a strong case study

Recently my good friend and professional coach, Linda Oglov, sent out a great article in her newsletter titled Your story – tell all or tell a little? 5 Tips to Developing a Career Story That Hits the Mark.  Though Linda was talking about developing a career story, as I went through each point, I realised how applicable the tips were to academics developing a science impact story – something many academics are in the process of doing here in the UK as part of a national assessment process (REF). So, with Linda’s permission, I have tweaked her tips slightly and drawn upon my own experiences of having written dozens of impact case studies over the last year and a half, to come up with some tips for crafting a strong impact case study.

An impact case study is unlike a resume, which for academics can border on being a novella, or a summary of teaching philosophy or research interests. The case study should not include every detail of your academic life since you left grad school. It’s a snapshot. A carefully crafted story that includes relevant and interesting information about how your science led to something that was useful to people outside of academia.

We’ve all seen the academic talk where someone takes the opportunity to discuss every project they’re working on in their lab – likely in an attempt to wow the audience with the breadth of their research. Perhaps it’s just me, but this approach has the opposite effect for me. When I’ve left such talks I generally feel either dissatisfied having not got enough details about the one project I was interested in (which constituted 5 minutes of the hour long seminar) or I leave not being able to recall a single project…the take home message has been lost in the barrage of information. It is a much better approach to tell a complete and thorough story about a small area of the research. It likely means you as a presenter feel somewhat dissatisfied as you know there was so much more to talk about, but better that then having a dissatisfied audience! Besides, if you give an engaging talk, you’ll no doubt have an opportunity to bring up the other stuff during questions or over drinks afterwards.

So, much like a talk, the science impact story must provide a complete and compelling story – drawing the reader in and taking them on a journey to the finish. Whether the case study is to be reviewed by a panel as part of an assessment process or as a marketing tool to showcase research by the university or funded by a research council, it is a story that has an audience and a purpose. Here are 5 tips for crafting that story based on what I have seen and read over the last couple of years:

1. Don’t be afraid to include something personal or interesting

Whatever the purpose of the case study – marketing or assessment tool – you want the case study to be interesting and hopefully even memorable. Though the science and the impact are critical elements to the story, don’t be afraid to include information about the journey that your audience may identify with or find interesting. For example, I helped craft a case study about the development of a surgical device for people with cervical disc degeneration. There seemed to be a big gap in the background information on how the design of the device came about – it was simply missing from the story. When I asked about it, I was told the researcher in question had simply scribbled the design for the prototype on the back of a cocktail napkin one night whilst at the pub. OK – so this is hardly the supporting Nature paper that one might want to include – but it’s memorable. We included it in the case study because a) it explained a gap of information and b) it was something everyone can understand and relate to. Later in a meeting, someone couldn’t remember the name of the device and referred to the case study as ‘the one where the guy scribbled the design on the napkin’. Evidence that this little tidbit of information that seemed entirely unscientific, was what made the case study memorable.

2. Remember your reader

It’s always important to remember who your readers are and what information is most important to them. Case studies that are being used as part of an assessment will be reviewed by experts and non-experts alike who may have as many as 700 case studies to review in total. No matter how good the reviewer, they are going to get fed-up as they near the end of their pile. Therefore, it makes sense to keep the language as simple as possible and to make the information they need accessible – not buried within a narrative filled with superfluous information. It’s less about what you want to say and more about what the reader needs to see. Think about the checklist the reviewer might have in front of them when reading your case study and make sure you’ve hit all the points clearly. It might be very difficult to cut out information that you feel you want to share as part of the story – but if it isn’t relevant – get rid of it.

This has undoubtedly been the biggest challenge with most of the case studies I have edited. Of course scientific findings are built upon a body of work – by yourself and others – they never stand alone. I believe academics want to make sure they credit those shoulders upon which they stand and therefore try to include the decades of research that preceded their work into their narrative. However, in the end it is a distraction and can tire your reader out before they get to what is most important – your research!

3. Keep it short, sweet, focused and easy to read

Right, well I’ve sort of already covered this point. A reviewer reading 700 case studies – enough said. Keep it short, sweet, focused and easy to read. Even experts in the field will appreciate a case study that is easy to read. So often, I see text that is overly complicated – using long complicated words where shorter ones suffice. It doesn’t mean that the science is any less complicated or rigorous, it just means that your making the information more accessible. How would you explain it to your grandparent or a 10-year old? If there’s a simpler way to say something…do so.

4. Include testimonials and quotes

Impact case studies are about others benefiting from research and who better to speak to those benefits than the users themselves? The strongest case studies I’ve seen include the voice of the research ‘users’. Quotes from others bring a different voice into the story, which helps to validate the impact claims within the case study. Several of the case studies I’ve worked on referred to reports or individuals who could corroborate impact claims, but these voices weren’t included in the narrative itself. These case studies benefited from simply bringing a quote into the narrative itself. Consider the difference between these two statements below:

The collaboration with Prof X provided the industry partner with a robust scientific base for their engaging curriculum product on climate change, as well as access to a scientific expert that could draw in the interest of the students.

compared with…

“What workinig with a researcher like Prof X does is provide us with three things,” said John Doe, Vice-President of Creative Curriculum. “First, you have an adventurous, personable context, which draws in the students. Second, you have highly rigorous and robust expert science. Third, you put it all together in a curriculum that is a story about our changing world. What more could we wish for our children than that?”

Both statements essentially provide the same information, but the latter is alive with the voice of the user, while the first is dry.

5. Hone your storytelling skills

The best way to learn to tell your science impact story well is to tell it often. Tell it to your friends and family, put it in a blog, tell it in your next seminar, include parts of it in your funding proposals…but tell it. Hone it based on the feedback you get – if people are glazing over, how can you change it to keep their attention? With more and more universities and funding agencies putting greater weight on the impact of research, this is a critical skill to develop. Imagine going to a job interview with a well-honed science impact story – what a great way to set yourself apart from the other candidates!


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