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.

craft, personal development

One Step To Being A Better Person

How many different motivational speakers and life coaches are in the world today? Approximately a brazillion.

I counted.

How many of them actually have something meaningful to say for your life?

Maybe 5 or 6.

Who are they?

priscilla-du-preez-Q7wGvnbuwj0-unsplash
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Who knows. Those 5 or 6 will be different for everyone, and will touch everyone in a different way, at different times of their lives, impacting different spheres of experience: relationships, health, spirituality, career, finance, hobbies & play, etc.

I don’t know who they are, but I guarantee you they all have some 7 steps to success and happiness.

Their own flavor of 13 tips for living a better life.

A “27-point Foolproof Path to Fabulousness!”

Or something.

Do they work?

Probably.

For the right people

At the right time.

But for you?

Right now?

Not likely.

You want my advice? Just be a better person.

 

I was reading Reddit and came across this nugget of self-hate. [https://www.reddit.com/r/exredpill/comments/dqgyfr/i_dont_know_what_to_do_anymore/] I’m not going to quote it, but it’s basically some guy in his early 20s complaining that he doesn’t know how other people do it. Everyone else seems to be better than him, and he wonders why.

And how.

How are they better people than him?

I offered my (admittedly unsolicited) advice with 5 steps to being a better person. I will, however, quote myself, because I think it’s worthwhile to have the discussion.

What to do? Stop reading “self-help” books that are written to exploit your addiction to “self-improvement”. The industry only exists to convince you that you’re going to get better if you just buy their next new source of tips and tricks. In reality, they want to sell you more books because, well, they don’t sell you any more books if you actually, you know, HELP YOURSELF to get better. You want 5 simple steps? Here, here’s 5 steps to becoming a better person:

  1. Read Marcus Aurelius, Meditations. It’s not a self-help book, but it is about being good with yourself.

  2. Go for a walk an hour a day, every day, for a year. No music, no audiobook, but just think.

  3. Write in a journal, not on the internet. Nobody here cares about you. you are the only one who does, so you are the only one who needs to know your thoughts.

  4. Stop smoking dope and drinking alcohol. You’re poisoning yourself and using intoxication to mask your real feelings.

  5. Stop swearing. It’s laziness. Put in the mental effort to think of a real insult. Swearing is simple, so it’s the mark of a simpleton. Be better than that.

So that’s my advice. But again, it’s “5 Steps to Being A Better Person”. And I realized, he doesn’t need 5 steps.

He doesn’t even need 3.

Or 2.

He, and everyone else, just needs ONE STEP to become a better person.

Are you ready?

It’s pretty radical an idea.

One that might revolutionize the self-help industry.

Here it is:

BEING A BETTER PERSON, STEP #1: BE A BETTER PERSON

Just be better.

That’s it.

Don’t like who you are?

Change.

Don’t like your attitude?

Change it.

Don’t like your emotions?

Change them.

Don’t like your anger?

Change it.

Recognize that you are choosing, every moment of every day, what you are going to do with that moment and that day.

If you don’t like what you’ve chosen, choose differently.

Be different.

BE DIFFERENT.

Be a better person.

I’m not the only one saying this. Here’s the Holstee Manifesto, which says a lot of the same stuff, in a pretty picture:

 

holstee_manifesto_poster
The Holstee Manifesto, available at holstee.com

Just be that better person.

No, it’s not easy.

It’s not laid out in 5, or 17, or 49 “simple” steps. Those specific steps might have worked for them. They might have worked, somewhat, for others around the world. But I’m 99.9% confident they won’t work for you.

It’s not that simple.

Because it can’t be.

My 5 steps don’t apply to you. They can’t. It’s impossible.

I don’t know what you want, where you’re starting from, and what you’re willing to put in to get there.

Only you know that.

Only you know what’s going to impact you.

Only you know what’s going to work.

And only you can do the work.

So –

Stop looking for answers in a book, or on a website, or in a seminar.

Stop searching for tips on how to be better, and just … start … being better.

Right now.

Don’t wait.

Nobody else is going to do it for you.

***

Stephan is a writer, editor, speaker, and publisher living in St. Louis, Missouri. His fiction (and fiction-ish) can be found at http://www.stephanjameswrites.com and at https://www.amazon.com/Predatory-Behavior-Stories-Stephan-James/dp/1790407931)

 

business development, craft, user experience, Writing improvement

Beware the Bot!

Chatbots seem to be all the rage these days in marketing. Some are good, some are, well… not so good.

They’re supposed to be a quick and easy tool to help increase visitor presence on your website.

They promise everything from increased time on page to simplified processes, eliminating humanity at the installation of a program and skyrocketing profits in the process.

And they’re becoming more ubiquitous by the moment. Google says there are ~33,000,000 website hits for “chatbots”. Now, those aren’t all bots themselves, but articles about them and self-promotions, too. But you know what I mean.

For your business, you can buy one, rent one, develop one, probably even lease one.

You’ve run into hundreds of them, perhaps thousands.

Yet…

Most of the time…

They’re totally worthless.

Well, maybe not totally worthless.

The companies who make and distribute them still get paid. So I guess they got that going for them.

But for the rest of us? Those who are thinking of using them in our business? Or who have to interact with them as an end-user? “The juice isn’t worth the squeeze,” as they say.

I’ve got two up on my computer right now. And they’re pretty bad examples of chatbotting. Let me explain, and hopefully help you to avoid these same user experience (UX) mistakes in the future.


CHATBOT ERROR #1 – TOO PUSHY

The first bad example is for a software company. I went to their website, and the thing popping up says:

“Hi 🖐️, can I set you up with an exclusive 14 day free trial?”

Basically asking if I want their product right away.

Before they know anything about me. Before they know anything about my needs, my budget, my clientele, anything!

I might be interested in a free trial. But I don’t know that when I first get to your website!

Offering that free trial is all well and good, in due time.

“In due time” means at the appropriate point in the sales sequence.

Maybe after you’ve already had some conversation with me, to investigate whether or not this software would actually be right for me.

You know, the old “Hi, how are you today? Do you come here often? Could I buy you a drink?” Not, Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but, wanna go out to my car and fool around?

Seriously, this is too much, too soon, and it’s going to turn people off.

You want to know what’s even worse?

This is a company I already do business with.

Yep, that’s right. I’m a customer.

They don’t really know me, do they? If they’re offering a trial of a service I already pay for, that tells me they don’t do a very good job of tracking who their customer are, now does it?

[Shaking my damn head over here.]

Don’t do this. Don’t pretend you know what your audience wants (free trial) without asking (support for an existing customer, learn more about the product, find information about careers, etc.).

And don’t be so stand-offish that you don’t even track who your current customers are! And here I thought I was dealing with a software company. I guess that’s just a myth.

But enough about that. Let’s get to the second example of bad chatbotting.


CHATBOT ERROR #2 – INSUFFICIENT PROGRAMMING.

You know how it goes.

The chatbot, all dressed up in a fancy avatar with a pretend person’s face on it (because, let’s be honest, we all know at this point that there’s no real person on the other end, we could save all of us the trouble and just put up a picture of a motherboard rather than an actress), asks us what we’d like to accomplish. We type it in, sometimes the chatbot works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

In this case, it looks like this. Please note, this is a different company from the prior example. As it should be:

Hi! I’m Olivia, your virtual job assistant at *******! You can ask me anything about our business, culture, team and more.

Not so bad. I’m confident it’s a bot, but I expect that my question will get redirected to the appropriate party once I ask. So, I reply as such:

Hi, consultants generally have a reputation for a lot of travel. Would this be true for a “******** Consultant” role as well?

See, I’m using real-people speak and a question that I truly want answered. What’s the response? Well, instead of recognizing that this question is probably out of its standard programming, and telling me she’ll direct me to the appropriate party immediately, the chatbot honed in on a keyword (“consultant”) and provided a stock answer.

On our career site, you can search jobs by keyword or location. You may also enter a requisition number as a keyword. If a position has been closed or placed on hold, it may not appear in the search results. We would also highly recommend you join our talent community to stay informed about news, events and opportunities at ******** by clicking here: *******

Hm.

Did that answer my question?

Nope.

Did it recognize that it wasn’t answering my question, and direct me to a better way to get what I wanted?

Nope again.

Did it at least consider that it might not have answered my question, and confirm whether or not it did?

All together now: No way, Jose!!!

How do I know such truths about the inner workings of a chatbot? Because I tried to continue the conversation. Here’s my reply:

thanks. what’s five minus eighteen?

Pretty simple question, right? If you’ve got a real person. Or if you’ve got a well-programmed chatbot. In this case, you’ve got neither. You’ve got this:

My pleasure! 🙂

Multiple problems here.

First, the chatbot is masquerading as a real person, which is deceptive. We as consumers tire of this charade quickly. If you had a real person in there, she (“Olivia”), would see the question, answer “negative thirteen”, and then ask whether or not she’s been able to help you. Since she didn’t, I immediately conclude that it’s a bot, that I’m not worthy of a real person to this company, they don’t care about my problems or my questions, and I can write them off as unhelpful.

And secondly, if you had a well-programmed bot, you would be able to recognize when your standard script is insufficient, and you’d be able to code up a quick redirect to get them on the path. You’d keep the visitor happy, you’d actually solve their problem, and you’d be more likely to get a future client, applicant, or business partner.

All because you actually thought through an appropriate UX design.

Pretty simple functionality that’s been lost amid the desire for automation. And that’s a shame.

I mean, I’m not a UX designer, or a broadcast marketer, but heck, even I can see this isn’t working as it’s intended.

Sure, you cut out some people (and their requisite salaries and benefits), but at what cost? Reputation, ease of use, applicability, and humanity, for starters.


CONCLUSION: DON’T DO THIS!

Don’t set up your chatbots like this.

Just…

Don’t.

It’s like, “Do you even know me, bro?” No, no you don’t. [Even more shaking of my damn head. I’m getting dizzy.]

It would have been better with absolutely nothing, rather than creating either one of these negative value experiences.

So in the future, don’t expect your chatbot to be the savior of your business.

Make it better. Actually put some thought into it. Don’t just expect to get the make-out session without the get-to-know-you session first.

Think through how people use it. And, when they do, review what they did, and whether or not they got what they needed.

And when you do, you’ll get better results.

I guarantee it.*

*better better looks, unfortunately, not guaranteed. 


***

P.S. If you’d like help creating automated messages for your chatbot, why not talk to a communications expert? A copywriter, perhaps? Send me an e-mail to stephan@sjmcopywriting.com and let’s figure out how to make your chatbot, your website, your book, or your autoresponders sound human again.