AEC Storytelling

5 Steps to Evolve Project Descriptions into Story-Driven Case Studies

[Video Transcript of 5 Steps to Evolve Project Descriptions into Story-Driven Case Studies by Scott D. Butcher, FSMPS, CPSM. Minor edits for clarity.]

Greetings, I’m Scott Butcher, and today I’m talking about the bane of the AEC industry – lame project descriptions – and how to easily evolve them into interesting, story-driven case studies.

The exact same project description has been written millions of times by architecture, engineering, construction, and environmental firms. Sure, the names change, the numbers change, the project delivery approach changes, but the descriptions are essentially the same.

Over and over and over again.

How does that differentiate our firms from one-another?

See if this sounds familiar:

Acme Structures provided full-service design for a new 25,000 sq. ft., two-story office building for Coyote Development. Located on a three-acre site, the building is LEED Silver Certified and divided into four tenant spaces plus common areas. Acme provided programming, architecture, interior design, structural engineering, MEP engineering, and construction administration services. The facility was designed using Building Information Modeling and completed on schedule and within budget.

That, my friends, was painful!

Why in the world should anyone care about that project? What does that description really tell you? Nothing! Absolutely nothing!

Imagine being a client or prospect reading that. And what if you’ve given them multiple project descriptions? With the exception of basic project facts, nothing changes.

And now imagine that they are receiving information from multiple companies. How many times can they read the same damn thing before their heads explode?

Look, it doesn’t matter if you’re a design firm, environmental firm, or construction firm. That just means that the services listed are different. But is anything else?

These descriptions can just as easily be verbal instead of written. How many times have business developers and seller-doers opened their mouths to talk about a project and let lose a stream of verbal vomit – data dumps of project statistics?

But let’s not blame our firm’s marketers and business developers, okay?

They can only write or talk about what they’ve been given. And what are they typically given? Client name, services provided, project size…

The Era of Project Facts is over. May it rest in peace.

The Era of Stories is upon us. Let’s embrace it!

But how?

When I deliver soft skills training, I teach storytelling by sharing proven formulas. There are a lot out there, but they are all very similar. They are techniques used by storytellers for hundreds of years.

At their core, they entail three things: Characters, Conflict, and Resolution. These are story building blocks.

It might be easy to think the end results will be too rigid. But that doesn’t need to be the case, because formulas are simply foundations and directions. Filling in the blanks is what makes each story unique and compelling. Or boring and crappy!

So here’s a simple case study formula. Take a project description, and run it through this formula.

Guess what? There will probably be a lot of holes. This is why you need to involve your firm’s Subject Matter Experts in every project description. These are the project managers, lead designers, site superintendents – the real “doers” on the project. They know the stories!


To evolve your project description into a case study, start with the Background.

Who is the client? What can you share about them?

By providing a little bit of Background, you are creating the setting, and making it relatable to your audience. For a novel, movie, or television show to succeed, we must care about the main characters. Your case study should be no different.


Next, review the primary Challenges that the client was facing.

What was driving the need for the project? Why was it important to the client?

Maybe a college was facing declining enrollment, a hospital dealing with antiquated systems, or a corporation undergoing rapid growth or geographic expansion.

Without this challenge, there’s no need for a project. So define it.

In terms of the storytelling building blocks, we’ve introduced the characters by providing the Background, and we’ve incorporated conflict, which are the Challenges.


Next we should discuss Options considered. And these options may be options the client considered before your firm was ever hired, or options that you developed with the client. Many case studies will have both.

Renovate an existing building or construct new? Acquire adjacent properties for expansion, or totally relocate? Incorporate sustainable features or go for green building certification?

There are alternative solutions for every project, no matter how large or small, no matter which services are being provided. Share the ones that are the most important and relevant to your audience.


This brings us to the Solution. We’ve set the stage and introduced the characters. We’ve address the challenges and conflict. We’ve reviewed options considered. Now we’ve selected the best option to address project goals – the Solution. What does that look like?

Yes, we may incorporate a few data points, like a “new 80,000 sq. ft. LEED Platinum classroom building.”

But the solution is broader than project facts. How did this solution address the challenges? Why was it the best option compared to the others? How did it fulfill the needs of the end-users, our characters?

But we’re not finished yet.

The Solution is only part of the resolution.


The other part is the Proof. We may claim that our characters lived happily ever after, but who’s going to buy that line? Prove it!

Maybe you can prove it with hard data, although this is often difficult to obtain. If you renovated a retail space, did sales improve after the project? If you built a manufacturing plant, did productivity and output increase? If you expanded a college, did enrollment go up?

Understand, these numbers are not about you. They are about your client.

You aren’t the hero, your client is.

Otherwise, incorporate the advice of presentation coach Nancy Duarte. She tells speakers to think of their role as that of Yoda, with the role of the audience as Luke Skywalker.

Carry that thinking through to your case studies. Like Yoda you must be.

But what if you can’t come up with hard data as proof?

Think testimonials. Incorporate a quote from a happy client. Maybe it is the client’s project manager or facility manager. Maybe from an end-user. Or maybe from the CEO of a company or an elected official.

Our case study formula entails five components: Background, Challenges, Options, Solutions, and Proof.

These cover the story building blocks of Characters, Conflict, and Resolution.

Project descriptions are a form of currency in our industry, but they are often just the price of admission.

Case Studies Have Broad Uses

Our firms often need to be prequalified to even receive an RFP. Having story-driven case studies will instantly differentiate us from firms sharing the mundane project descriptions that everyone else provides.

But remember, case studies have broad uses. They are not just for project sheets or proposals.

Post them on your website.

Make sure your business developers and seller-doers are armed with them because these are stories they can share with prospects and other clients.

Incorporate them into project interviews – but instead of showing slide after slide of relevant experience – that no one cares about – focus on one project very similar to the one you’re chasing.

And tell that story. Walk your prospect through that experience, but frame everything in terms of their project.

Demonstrate points of similarity. How the processes you used to solve the challenges for Client A will be the processes you use to solve Client B’s unique challenges.

One final note of caution. Do not share any proprietary information about your clients. You may have a Non-Disclosure Agreement in place, limiting what you can say. Even if you don’t, make sure you don’t betray your client’s confidentiality and trust.

In some instances, that may limit your case study’s impact. But perhaps you could make your client “generic,” protecting them and still showcasing the project, although with a little less detail.

But in most scenarios, you’ll be able to develop a robust and interesting case study that will enthrall your audience, not appall them!

I’m Scott Butcher, and I help design and construction firms improve their marketing and business development acumen through consulting, training, and facilitation.

Thank you so much for your time, and I look forward to seeing you again soon.

[End of Transcript]

Looking to evolve your firm’s project descriptions? Or provide storytelling and value proposition training to your team? Contact Scott D. Butcher, FSMPS, CPSM at 717.891.1393 or

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