better language, business development, craft, Writing improvement

What “Show, Don’t Tell” Means, and How To Use It To Your Advantage

What “Show, Don’t Tell” Really Means

There’s an adage in fiction writing that goes “Show, don’t tell”. The basic point is that if you want the reader to believe that it’s cold outside, you’ll be much more effective at getting that point across when you include specific, memorable details about what it means to be cold, rather than bland, unemotional facts about the weather.

snowy pathway surrounded by bare tree
Photo by freestocks.org on Pexels.com

For example, you could say “It was -10 degrees outside. Jack thought it was colder than he’d ever seen. He decided to hurry.” That’s probably only going to matter and be relevant to people who’ve actually been outside in weather that’s close to -10 degrees. That’s not a lot of us. So you’ve told us that it’s cold, but we can’t really feel it. Plus, you’ve done all the imagination for us when you told us exactly what Jack decided. We become impartial observers in the scene, and we really don’t care about Jack and what’s happening. We’re disengaged, and we don’t really have a lot of incentive to continue reading.

As an alternative, consider this: “Jack stepped out of the door and immediately everything froze. Even his eyelashes turned brittle in the wind. He spit, and the residue crackled on his lips. His fingers were lead pipes at the end of thicker lead pipes that used to be his arms. Holy shit, he thought. I better make this quick.

Do you see how much more effective that second option is? Here we’ve shown what it means to be cold. The reader can imagine what it would feel like to be in such brutal conditions. They can put themselves in Jack’s place, and that makes a much more engaging narrative.

This writer is going to get people reading the rest of this scene and the next, because those readers are invested in the story. They’ve been given something to do, some reason to read the story, and that’s why they’re going to continue to engage and enjoy the experience.

So – what does that have to do with writing for your business? Whether it’s external-facing materials (case studies, website content, even books and blogs) or internal content (memos, quarterly reports, or task prioritization, for example) consider the principle of Show, don’t tell when you’re drafting for more engagement and greater effectiveness.

How to Use “Show, Don’t Tell” in Business Writing

Let’s say you’re writing up the quarterly earnings report for an insurance company, and you want to highlight the negative effect of the most recent poor experience in claims. You could say “Claims were 3% higher than anticipated last month and 5% higher for the year. We forecast this will lead to lower earnings of $697,000 for the year.”

Yes, it’s factual. Yes, it’s true. But does it show the impact of what’s happened? Or does it require the audience to try and come up the effects on their own? Don’t force them to do that. You’re the expert, you’ve got all the information at your fingertips, use it to tell a good story that drives future action.

Here are three tips for including more “showing” in your business writing, for greater impact than simply “telling”.

“Showing” Tip #1: Get Specific

Instead of saying “claims were 5% higher for the year,” consider adding specific, relevant details that will help the audience to relate this to their past experience or current situation.

“Claims were 5% higher at the end of this month compared to plan, and it’s across the board. The Binkenberger line was 7% higher, the Bergerbinken line was 4% higher, and the Gerberkinben line was 3% higher. Something’s going on. We’ve got to do some investigation immediately.”

That’s a very different situation from the following:

“Claims were 5% higher this month than a year ago, and it’s due to one anomaly. The Zoomfelder account had a million-dollar hit that was in the 95th percentile of unlikelihood. Everything else was right on target. Overall, this is going to affect earnings by $697,000 after reserve release, but we can handle that and explain it easily to stakeholders.”

If you don’t do the appropriate showing for your audience, they won’t know which message to take away. So by adding specific, relevant details, you’ve significantly changed the output message. And you’ve given the audience something easier to connect with than bland facts.

“Showing” Tip #2: Consider Using A Symbolic Representation

Symbolic representations are literary devices like a simile or a metaphor. Use them to create greater impact with the audience by relating what you’re talking about to what they know. “A loss of $697,000 for the year is really going to impact our shareholders. Average shareholders are expecting a $20,000 distribution of profits at the end of the year. This is going to reduce that to $15,000, which is like taking a vacation out of each of their pockets. Be prepared for some blowback.”

When you add symbols, either metaphors (“blowback” is just bad shareholder reactions, they’re not literally going to burn up the home office) or similes (“like taking a vacation…”, you don’t really know what those shareholders are going to do with their dividends) you help make it much more tangible and relevant to the audience.

“Showing ” Tip #3: Add A Little Action

Being more dynamic allows the reader to feel like there’s something happening, something that is on the move, and, as a consequence, something that can be changed, if necessary. If everything’s already done, then there’s nothing for the reader to do. They want to take action. They want to feel like it’s important that they read the report. Give them something to do!

man holding clapper board
Photo by Martin Lopez on Pexels.com

“A loss of $697,000 for the year is expected. However, there are 2 potential responses. First, we could accelerate the claims management restructuring program that was slated for next year into this year, potentially offsetting about $150k of that loss a bit sooner. And second, we could cash in some option contracts that we’ve been accumulating slowly and hadn’t planned to monetize for a while. This would add an additional $180k after-tax profit, thus softening the blow a little.”

Now that’s something for the audience to do, and a reason for them to have read the report!

Summary – Three “Showing” Tips

There you go: three tips for more showing, less telling in your writing: Add specific, relevant details; use some symbolic language; and add action for something to do.

 

The Before-And-After

So, what’s the verdict? Consider these two different ways of communicating essentially the same facts, and decide which is more valuable:

Version 1: Claims were 3% higher than anticipated last month and 5% higher for the year. We forecast this will lead to lower earnings of $697,000 for the year.

Or would you rather have the following?

Version 2: Claims were 5% higher at the end of this month compared to plan, and it’s across the board. The Binkenberger line was 7% higher, the Bergerbinken line was 4% higher, and the Gerberkinben line was 3% higher. Something’s going on. We’ve got to do some investigation immediately. In the meantime, we need to deal with the fallout. A loss of $697,000 for the year is really going to impact our shareholders. Average shareholders are expecting a $20,000 distribution of profits at the end of the year. This is going to reduce that to $15,000, which is like taking a vacation out of each of their pockets. Be prepared for some blowback. However, there are 2 potential responses. First, we could accelerate the claims management restructuring program that was slated for next year into this year, potentially offsetting about $150k of that loss a bit sooner. And second, we could cash in some option contracts that we’ve been accumulating slowly and hadn’t planned to monetize for a while. This would add an additional $180k after-tax profit, thus softening the blow a little more. How would you like to proceed?

It should be clear that adding “Show, Don’t Tell” elements to your business communications will make them more powerful, and you more effective as a storyteller.

business development, craft, Writing improvement

How to Organize Your Writing – Work Backwards

You’re not going to believe this, but this (this exact sentence, that started with “You’re not going to believe this, but this [this exact sentence…]”) was written last. Read on to find out how. More importantly, why.

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Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

What’s the hardest part of writing an article (or report, or memo), whether for your industry publication, an online community, your boss or the C-suite, or even just your own blog?

Some will say the hardest part is just getting started.

Like, that big blank canvas is intimidating.

Overwhelming.

Just staring at you, mocking your inability to get out anything reasonable.

For others, it’s the organization.

What do I say first? And then? Where do I end?

For non-writers, the structure can be just as difficult as the execution.

But it doesn’t have to be.

I can’t always help with the blank page syndrome. For organizing your thoughts, though, I can at least give you a structure for how to plan and then actually write the damn thing.

And this is not about how to prove your ideas with appropriate examples, or how to develop an appropriate voice or tone. [We can talk about those other times.] This is a process for you to organize your article creation, one that I apply myself when I sit down to write.

There are about as many methods as there are professional writers’ hands. (Yes, that means some have more than one method. Don’t shoot the messenger.) I have no idea whether this will work for you as well as it does for me. But give it a shot next time you’re wondering how to get started and how to fill up the space on the page. You just might find your next great productivity hack.

With that, let’s talk about how you can develop a quality piece with all of the essential parts: an Executive Summary (or Abstract), an Introduction, the all-important Body Text, and a Conclusion. It might be counter-intuitive, but I’m actually going to recommend you plan your writing completely opposite to how your reader will experience your article.

Start With the End In Mind

Yeah, this is a reference to The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. And it’s a reference to Start With Why. It’s also the exact answer to the question I ask when people want my help creating content: “Why are you writing, exactly? What do you want your audience to know?”

Just start listing out the lessons you’d like them to take away once they’ve finished reading your article. They don’t have to be in order, they don’t have to be pretty, they just have to be on the page. Refinement comes later.

Prune Out The Less Effective Fluff

If you’re writing an article, you’re going to want one, or at most two, conclusions for your audience to take away afterwards. If you’ve got three or more, you’ll have to do some hard work and pick the one or two that you really want to emphasize.

The great thing about having written all of them out, though, is that you’re not banishing those ideas to the hinterland, never to return again. If they’re related, plan them for another article! If they are absolutely integral to the understanding of the most important one or two, then maybe it’s not an article but should be delivered in a longer format: a series of articles, a White Paper, or even an eBook.

Once you’ve identified your audience’s most important take-away, it’s time to get busy.

Create Strong Roots

You’re still not actually writing at this point. You’re doing more outlining than anything else: these are the two conclusions that lead to final answer #1, and these are the four theories which support those two conclusions, and these are the ten data points which underlie the four theories.

Create your outline as if you were working from the trunk of a tree down into the roots: trace back all of your supporting arguments to their fundamental causes, and map out how you’re going to lead the reader from one item to the next.

When you’ve got a comprehensive outline, then you can start to write the Body Text. But maybe not from the beginning to the end.

Don’t Assume You Have To Write Linearly

Your audience is going to read from the start to the finish, obviously. That’s what we’re trained to do from age six.

But you, as the author, as the sculptor of their journey through your article, don’t need to actually write section one before section two. Write what’s most comfortable first, and get into the rhythm that way. Work out the kinks of your tone and voice with the elements that are most automatic, because you will often spark other ideas you didn’t expect as you’re firing across all your neurons.

the-digital-marketing-collaboration-i0WO_RzeB2Y-unsplash.jpg
Photo by The Digital Marketing Collaboration on Unsplash

You’ll find that you spend your time working on the various parts of the Body Text in spurts. It’s a little chaotic and can be hard to get used to, especially for linearly-inclined brains.

Don’t be surprised, though, if you end up appreciating this more flexible approach.

For me, even in this article, I’ve been jumping around on the page, moving words and whole paragraphs at a time, sometimes leaping from section to section, to capture what’s coming out of my head at that moment. I don’t want to be rigidly tied to the “first-to-last” order when I’m being creative.

That’s just not how our brains work. They make connections we didn’t see at times we didn’t expect. Go with it. Learn to embrace the volatility and minimal direction. You have time for refinement later.

Write Your Conclusion Next-to-Next-to-Last

Your Conclusion should summarize the important lessons you identified at the beginning. You may have even written the conclusion right after you outlined. That’s okay, and it’s a good check

When you write the conclusion, then, read back over your text and ask yourself, Where did I say that? It’s a good opportunity to check your work and confirm that you’ve gotten everything you wanted into the text itself. If you can’t find where you proved what you wanted to, go back to the text and add a section, drop in an example, or make the logical development of the idea more obvious.

And Your Introduction Next-to-Last

You want to have all of the details of your article (or report or memo) already finished before you write the introduction and conclusion. If you start at the introduction, you might find yourself introducing more ideas than you actually have space for. Then, you’ll end up trying to write the article to conform to the specifications you set out in the introduction. This can lead to output that’s too long, or unfocused, or wandering.

You’ll keep on track by remembering your structure and only writing the Conclusion after you’ve clearly laid out the salient points in the text itself.

After the Body matches the Conclusion, you’ll be able to write the right Introduction, one that appropriately sets the stage for what’s to come. Don’t give away too much information too early, because that’s what the text is for.

Get Feedback and Revise

No matter how clear you think you are in your prose, with your examples, or based on your outline, you probably won’t get it right the first time. Mostly this is due to “inside-the-jar” syndrome. If you’re in a jar of your own problems, you can’t read the label that tells what those problems are, because you’re inside the jar!

You need an outside perspective. Have a friend or colleague read your draft and tell you the ABCD’s: what’s Awkward, what’s Boring, what’s Confusing, or what’s Drifting (off-topic).

Once you have an idea of where you’re going wrong, you can take a look at your article again with impartial eyes, and refine where necessary. This is where you’ll apply your [DELETE] key liberally. It’s there for a reason.

Write the Executive Summary (or Abstract) Last

I know, I know, not everything has an Executive Summary. But many will. They’ll be a 2-sentence description of the article as a teaser, or it might even be an actual abstract or summary if you’re writing a memorandum or report. So if this part isn’t critical to your operations, you shouldn’t be spending a lot of time on it. Putting it last means you aren’t going to be doing unnecessary work if you find in the middle that you topic has changed from what you originally intended.

If everything above hasn’t convinced you not to start writing with the Executive Summary, just remember this quote: “So the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” Sure, the original context was about not being jealous of others, but it works well in this context too. What you work on last will be read first, and what you work on first will be read last.

Wrapping It Up

And you’re done! Here’s a quick review of this efficient method to create an article, report, or memo for whatever audience you’re impacting:

  1. Begin with the end in mind.
  2. Make sure you have chosen a clear message to be delivered.
  3. Work backwards through the outline.
  4. Write the Body in whatever non-linear fashion you choose.
  5. Write the Conclusion as a check that your body text includes everything you wanted.
  6. Write the Introduction.
  7. Get feedback and revise.
  8. If necessary, write the Executive Summary. You can only do this last because even though you might have an idea where it’s going to go, you can’t be sure. Putting this last ensures you set the appropriate stage.

And while you might not yet believe me, think about this: the words that you read first I wrote last, and these, that you’re reading last, I wrote (or planned) first. Game – set – match … Me.

***

Stephan Mathys is an author and communication strategist for actuaries, engineers, and data scientists. His forthcoming eBook is called It’s Not About the Data: 12 Communication Strategies for Left-Brain Professionals. Send an e-mail to stephan@sjmcopywriting.com to get a sneak peek and provide your feedback, which will obviously help improve the final version.

business development, craft, data and metrics

Critique My Code, Please

note, this article was originally published on LinkedIn

matrix-3109378_1280
Image by Jae Rue from Pixabay

 

ROUTINE ShouldYouHireAWriter(ContentCalendar, SubjectMatterExpertList)

DIM ContentCalendar AS array(ContentIndex, ProductionDate, ContentType, SkillRequired, LeadTime)

DIM SubjectMatterExpertList AS array(Name, AreaOfExpertise, WritingSkill, AvailableHours)

FOR EACH ContentIndex IN ContentCalendar

    FOR EACH Name IN SubjectMatterExpertList

        IF Professionals.WritingSkill < ContentCalendar.SkillRequired THEN

ShouldYouHireAWriter = TRUE

            CALL Hire(Writer(ContentType, SkillRequired))

            ENDIF

        ELSE IF Professionals.AvailableHours < ContentCalendar.LeadTime THEN

ShouldYouHireAWriter = TRUE

            CALL Hire(Writer(ContentType, AvailableHours))

            ENDIF

        ELSE ShouldYouHireAWriter = FALSE

        NEXT SubjectMatterExpertList.Name

    NEXT ContentCalendar.ContentIndex

END SUB

***

Let me Real-People-Speak that for you all.

For those who aren’t programmers, here’s what this says.

If you’ve got some kind of content your marketing team has decided is necessary to the essential function of your business (a Case Study, perhaps, or a blog post about a new product you’re developing for a growing market), you may want to get some outside help for that.

But – how do you decide whether or not to engage that outside professional? I have two criteria:

1) Do you have skill in that type of content?

Maybe you’ve never written a blog post before. Maybe you’ve never written anything before. Your skill is going to be defined not only by your writing skill, but your professional area. Are you a programmer? Maybe you shouldn’t be writing about end-user support, even though you’ve been asked to. If your skill is not up to what’s required of the piece of content, you should probably hire a writer.

2) Do you have enough time to do it?

Perhaps you’re neck-deep in requirements and coding for that very same model update that you’ve got to get out before quarter-end, and you know that taking ten hours of your time in the next month to write this stupid case study just isn’t in your budget. At that point, perhaps you need to spend less time writing and outsource that project. A good one could potentially cut your ten hours of drafting, revision, and review into a one-hour interview. What else could you produce in those nine hours? Might it be better to let you specialize there?

This mini-program essentially cycles through each piece of content and asks those two questions. Yes, it’s written a little facetiously. I know the syntax is probably way off, and there are clearly undefined subroutines that, should I try to get this to compile, would be throwing off errors like the Bad News Bears. Give me a break, I haven’t actually coded anything in like 6 months.

But the point is to show that there are pretty good reasons why you might look to outside help. And this routine would apply not only to writing content, it should apply to everything you do. [I use content creation because, frankly, that’s what I’m neck-deep in right now.]

First, evaluate whether your team has the necessary skill to complete the project upcoming. If not, you’re going to need some help.

Once you decide you do have the skill, determine if they have enough time to complete it. If not, you’re going to need some help.

And “need some help” doesn’t always mean hiring a professional to do that exact thing you want done, whether it’s building a retaining wall, shooting a promotional video, or even meeting with a client.

Sometimes, you might wish to hire another full-time person to do those specific tasks. Others, it might be that you should remove some of the lower-level tasks on your professional’s to-do list by reassigning them, thus freeing up more time in that high-level production arena.

The point is, you have options. Remember that, and don’t just assume that everyone you already employ can do everything. That’s why we’ve created this specialization economy, anyway. You should take advantage of it.

***

Stephan Mathys is a technical content writer for really smart professionals in the actuarial, data science, and engineering fields. You can reach him with questions about this article or his book, The Handbook of Content Marketing, at stephan@sjmcopywriting.com.