Show, don’t tell

It’s a key principle of writing - it’s also the best way to run a business

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

“Show, don’t tell” is, for many, the first principle of effective writing.

The premise is simple; instead of using vague words, or inserting a string of opinions, use specific words that define and frame and make your experience memorable if not evocative to those who may never have had that particular experience.

This is one of those ideas that is, or seems, complicated, but a few examples might clarify it – and make us all better writers, citizens and business people.

When asked what a vivid experience was like, a difficult conversation, a military deployment, starting a business, or guiding a business through a difficult stretch, don’t use, or at least don’t be satisfied with, words like “interesting”, “challenging” or “awkward” – those are all opinions and have no substance or message.

If, after coming out of a personal catastrophe, a survivor describes it as “interesting”, “challenging” or “awkward”, what are they saying that wasn’t already known?

Any one of us, with any similar experience whatsoever, would assume that a military deployment, for example, was “interesting”, “challenging” or “awkward” – but what was “your” experience?

Every business has a “why” story. We might call it a business plan, but it is the simple, yet specific outline of why the business exists; what does this business do that no other business already does?

What sets your business apart?

Why does your business matter?

When things don’t work out, or unexpected developments occur, does your “story” change to meet the shifting landscape or do you anchor even more tightly to your core principles?

There is no set formula or “correct” response.

But either way, your experience, your business philosophy, becomes more defined and clarified.

Show me the money!

A popular line several years ago (from the movie Jerry Maguire) was “Show me the money!”

This is “Show, don’t tell” in a nutshell.

Don’t “tell” me about money, or business or relationships or even religious faith; “show” me.

“Show” me what it is, why it matters and what it really means.

If someone tells you that starting a business is “difficult” – what are they really telling you?

Is it the most challenging, exhilarating, satisfying and frustrating experience of your life? If so, tell us how.

Tell us what it looks like and feels like – and give us a sense of those unexpected encounters and lessons you would have learned nowhere else.

Consider a basic human experience – a first job, a first love/heartbreak, becoming a parent (especially of a disabled chid) or first encounter with a foreign culture, besides using terms like “interesting” or “challenging”, what was the experience like?

What problems did you never expect?

How are you a different person from who you were before this experience?

How are you different from anyone else because of your experience?

This is where life long friendships – and customers – come from.

Why should anyone trust or buy from you?

If you have an authentic and compelling story, it will be close to irresistible.

Here’s another example; remember the old central retail principle – “The customer is always right”?

As always, don’t tell me; show me.

How is your customer service? What’s your return/exchange policy?

Are you willing to take that extra step?

What is that unexpected detail you can add to make every customer feel special and inspire them to tell everyone they know about your business?

Every business knows that word-of-mouth is the best advertising.

But it is also the worst.

Those social media reviews can make- or break – any business.

Going “viral” after all, is a metaphor from the characteristics of a rapidly spreading, nearly unstoppable, often lethal, disease.

Potential customers, voters or converts are all far more likely to believe someone they know than some slick advertising campaign.

Consider those who talk- or even “tell” for a living – pastors and politicians in particular – how much do we really trust, admire or believe them?

And how often are they the butt of jokes or the targets of satire, criticism and scandal?

The reason is very simple; they “tell” us – they all too rarely “show” us what they believe or care about.

When was the last time you met, or even heard a story of a politician or pastor who lived by the rules and expectations that they so earnestly expect the rest of us to follow?

That “thought leader” who lived up to his or her own standards would have no shortage of dedicated followers.

The “brand” of person or product that resonates, that rings true, is the brand that connects.

The brand that we will remember – and support – is the brand we identify with – the brand we trust and believe in.

From car manufacturers to political parties to religious denominations, we are all looking for, and willing to support, someone we can believe in.

Don’t tell me that your product is the best, show me.

Don’t tell me that your company is the best, show me.

This simple principle could make your business stand out. It could also even make you a better writer.


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