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
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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
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“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.