The Hero’s Journey: Using Storytelling Elements for Better Case Studies

Photo by Kun Fotografi on

Client: Element
Original article

Storytelling – it’s one of those things that separates us from the animals. Sure, honeybees do dances that tell their buddies where to find flowers, and dolphins seem to have complex ways of communicating, but no creature can craft a story like the homo sapiens.

We tell stories that make us laugh, cry, or feel scared, that inspire and teach us lessons. In marketing, we often use storytelling as a form of proof and persuasion.

One of the most effective uses of stories in a content marketing strategy is the case study.  That’s because case studies are literally true stories about what your organization does and how it serves your customers and clients.

Case studies are an excellent way to show how your company brings value using a real-life example often backed by statistics. Plus, they have a definitive beginning, middle, and end, including a problem solved by your product or service.

If your case studies are falling flat, or if you’re struggling to get your customers to agree to participate and give testimonials, it might be because you’re telling the wrong story.

There is a way, however, to structure your case studies with storytelling elements that make them more compelling and help them resonate with your target audience.

To help us out, let’s get some storytelling advice from two very different people: a renowned literature professor and the creator of offbeat television shows with cult followings.


Joseph Campbell is responsible for developing the concept of the monomyth, which he explains in detail in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. While studying mythology during the 1940s, Campbell observed that there were striking parallels between stories told across time and cultures.

In fact, Campbell believes the majority of the most-beloved stories ever told follow a similar pattern in which a hero is called to adventure, goes on a journey into a strange new world, faces a series of challenges, and eventually returns home changed.

This pattern became known as “The Hero’s Journey,” and not only will you find it in stories from the Bible, Greek mythology, and Native American lore, it’s also the structure used for many of our favorite films. It’s the basis for nearly every super hero story, sci-fi epic, and Disney movie.

The Ted-Ed video below explains Campbell’s idea of the monomyth and how it applies to some recent and familiar stories.

If you’re writing a novel or a screenplay, following Campbell’s original 17-step formula for a heroic journey works well. If you’re writing a short case study, however, you’ve got to distill your story down to its core, especially if you want it to fit on a one-page PDF.

Not to mention, unless you’ve got a killer imagination, it’s tough to make a B2B case study that ties into concepts like “Belly of the Whale,” “Apostasis,” and “Atonement with the Father.”

Thankfully, there are simplified versions of this template, including one that breaks it all down into eight storytelling elements. It comes from Dan Harmon, the creative mind behind irreverent comedy shows, including Community and The Adventures of Rick and Morty.

Harmon’s work tends to resonate with a certain type of audience, but his dedication to this story structure is impressive. He calls his version of the Hero’s Journey, “The Story Circle.” Here’s how it looks compared to Campbell’s more complex outline:


harmons story

Watch the video below to hear Harmon explain his streamlined approach to The Hero’s Journey in his own words, using an episode of Rick and Morty as an example.

Harmon’s Story Circle has a character with a need or problem who leaves the normal world behind, goes on a journey to search for the solution to that problem, finds it, pays a price, and returns changed.

You can probably already see how that approach would work for creating a case study that also has a strong story. Every case study has a problem that gets solved and brings positive change through some sort of process or journey to implement the solution.

But … there’s something that many case studies get wrong.

It happens at the very top of The Story Circle, and because of this crucial mistake, the rest of the story gets thrown off course, completely missing the mark.


The first step in Harmon’s Story Circle is “You.” That’s the reveal of the main character.

When we read a book, watch a movie, or listen to any type of story, we identify with the protagonist. It doesn’t matter if the main character is the opposite gender, living 500 years ago, or a talking raccoon, we put ourselves in the main character’s shoes when we experience a story.

Think about the main character in your case studies. Who’s the hero we’re following? If your case studies make your company the hero, you are missing an opportunity to tell the right kind of story. In this case, “You” really shouldn’t be you.

Potential clients and customers will find it much easier to relate to your actual clients and customers, and that’s who the hero needs to be. A story that puts your company, or its products and services, at the center of a journey may still be interesting to read, but it won’t have the same impact as a story about your customers. Plus, telling impressive stories about yourself just sounds like bragging.

So, where does your company fit in the case study story? There are a lot of great places, and it may depend on the story being told, your industry, or the products and services featured in the case study.

For example, your company could be the one calling the hero to an adventure, encouraging them to challenge the status quo and take a risk on something new.

Your company could be offering what the hero is seeking on the journey, the thing that fulfills the need. Or, what you’re offering could be the treasure they acquire before they return “home” as the hero.

Heroes typically meet people and form partnerships during their journeys. In many case studies, it’s a good idea to position your organization as the trusted mentor or a sidekick who guides the hero and helps them out during the journey. Or, perhaps the solution you provide is the secret weapon a potential customer needs to take on a challenge.

The point is, even though potential customers may desperately need your help, they don’t want to see themselves as the damsel in distress in need of rescuing. They want to be the one who saves the day.

It’s called a “Buyer’s Journey” for a reason. There is a story behind every purchase decision, and it’s their story, not yours. Case studies can be a lot more than an explanation of key features of what you offer backed by data and a quick quotation from the customer.

They can be emotion-driven stories that cause prospects to say, “I want to buy from these guys, because they’ll help me get through this problem and be the hero.”

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