Why Real Examples Are Better Than Hypotheticals

I work with a client who likes to use hypotheticals. She’s an expert in the wealth management industry, and because her clients are ultra-high-net-worth individuals, they value their privacy. Her conversations with them are confidential. So, whenever she writes about how to conduct productive family meetings or pass down wealth without ruining your kids, she’s reluctant to use examples from work with her clients.

In one article that I edited for her about asset protection, she used a fictional married couple named “Carl” and “Carla” to illustrate her points. Hypothetically speaking, Carla was an obstetrician, and Carl managed rental properties. Their net worth was $30 million, and they were worried about the liabilities related to their jobs and how they could pass down their assets to future generations without interference from potential creditors.

Although I appreciated the alliteration, I told her that using Carl and Carla as examples wasn’t going to fly. When reading about business topics, people want real stories, not make-believe. Here’s why:

  • We’re inherently interested in other people. I don’t know about you, but anytime someone’s writing about a topic I’m interested in and starts to share their own experience, I immediately perk up. Just this morning, I read a blog post about whether people can really change. The author recounted that he had recently read his performance reviews going back 20 years and realized that he hadn’t improved much in his developmental areas despite many years of trying. However, he also realized he had greatly improved in areas in which he had natural talent and ability. So, the answer to “Can people change?” was yes and no. I don’t think the author’s conclusion would have been nearly as compelling if he had used hypotheticals about Carl and Carla instead of a story about himself.
  • Real examples generate true insight. So many concepts, both in business and our personal lives, sound good in theory but are challenging to apply to the messiness of real life. They amount to platitudes, which aren’t helpful when you’re trying to change your business or yourself. Take the marital adage, “The key to a successful marriage is good communication.” It sounds like reasonable advice. But what is “good communication”? In his book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, marriage psychologist and researcher John Gottman explains that for every negative interaction a couple has, those in a stable or happy marriage have five or more positive interactions. Using that 1 to 5 ratio, Gottman and his team can predict whether a couple will divorce with 90% accuracy. It doesn’t matter whether a couple has screaming matches or avoids discussing tough issues, as long as a higher percentage of their interactions include humor, affection, and appreciation, they’re fine. That insight, gleaned from real-life experience, is much more helpful than telling couples to strive for having “good communication,” unless, of course, their marriage is hypothetical.
  • You establish credibility: Anyone can make up a hypothetical story about Carl and Carla. But not everyone can describe step-by-step how to lead a company through a digital transformation, corporate restructuring, or culture change. That comes from hard-earned experience. Recounting those details for readers will convince them you know what you’re talking about. You’re not just spouting theories; you’ve applied them and have the battle scars and wisdom to prove it. One client I helped write a paper about his novel approach to product innovation wanted to use examples from other companies like Apple and Tesla rather than those he had worked for. He worried that his own experience wasn’t impressive enough. “No, no, no,” I told him. “Everyone already knows those examples. And you weren’t there, so you can’t speak knowledgeably about the details.” I encouraged him to stick to examples from his first-hand experience leading product teams, which were so much richer in the end.

So, if real examples are far superior to hypotheticals, why isn’t everyone using them? Of all the objections I’ve heard over the years, they typically boil down to fear. Fear of “bothering” a client by asking them to be part of a case study. Fear of using a client example and having them get upset. Fear that current clients or prospects will think you’re a blabbermouth and never trust you again.  These are valid fears. Using client examples is a delicate matter. But you’d be surprised how many clients will say yes when you set the following ground rules:

  • Make them the hero. The biggest fear that anyone has about being used as an example is that they or their company will look bad. You can ease that anxiety by assuring them your focus will be on how they overcame a challenge, not the challenge itself. Yes, you will share some details about the problem they were grappling with, but ultimately the story is about how they solved it. While working on a white paper for a company that provides corporate training on how to have honest conversations in the workplace, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of big-name clients who were willing to be featured as case studies. The leaders I interviewed at those companies spoke candidly about the dysfunctional communication patterns that were hurting their businesses. But the focus of the case studies was ultimately about their willingness to address that dysfunction and how they did it. That made them champions.
  • Give them editorial control. From the outset, let the client know they will be able to review the case example before it’s published and can make whatever changes they want. This concession is tricky for writers like me because I want the examples to be as honest and detailed as possible, which isn’t always the objective of the client’s legal department or PR staff, whose jobs are to protect the company’s reputation. When an example is under review, I worry that they’ll take out all the “good stuff” and sometimes they do. But I’m often surprised at what they leave in, and we’re usually able to reach a compromise on the parts they want to change. And if we can’t, we leave it out. Because it’s their story, too.
  • Disguise their identity. Using named examples in business articles is best because they’re more credible. It’s clear you’re not making it up. That’s why publications such as the Harvard Business Review prefer named examples. But it’s not always possible. So as a second option, we’ll use the case study but disguise the company’s identity by calling it a “large technology company” and changing any details that would enable a reader to figure out who they are. If the issue is particularly sensitive, we’ll change the details so that the company wouldn’t even recognize itself. For example, if the real story is about drug trials for a new diabetes treatment, we might say it’s a pharmaceutical company that’s developing a new drug for rheumatoid arthritis. Anonymizing an example isn’t ideal, but it does allow us to use it to illustrate a point about drug trials without compromising the confidentiality of the client.

Examples are a powerful part of business articles, blog posts, and white papers. They are the storytelling that can make an otherwise dull treatise on asset protection come to life. So, whenever possible, include real-life examples. Hypotheticals about Carl and Carla should be a last resort.

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