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
Photo by Martin Lopez on

“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.

better language, craft, Writing improvement

The 3 Essential Ps of a Good Story

Stories are the way humans connect to others. Storytelling has been around far longer than blogs, spreadsheets, databases, and even civilizations that have come and gone.

We have inscribed stories on cave walls that have lasted for millennia and will continue for millennia more.

Wikimedia Commons

We have handed down stories for generations that tell of our origins and predict our future. We use stories to educate (parables), warn of danger (fables), and woo potential lovers (poetry).

We tell stories because they allow us to relate our own experience to the background of our audience. They don’t have to go out and face the saber-toothed tiger themselves; they can simply listen to the victorious hunters returning after the kill and partake of the adventure without the danger.

And stories are powerful, because they trigger emotions, and emotions inspire action much more than pure data ever will.

Learning to tell stories is, therefore, a critical part of being an effective human, no matter what your role in society – parent, authority, or cog in the wheel just trying to get along.

Learn How to Tell Good Stories and Increase Your Influence

Okay, but what makes a good story? How can you tell whether the story you’re about to tell is a good one or not?

We all intuitively know what a good story is, when we read, hear, or watch Star Wars, Harry Potter, Murder on the Orient Express, or even Aesop’s Fables. We see these as great stories because they resonate with us, as readers, and they make us feel something. They intrigue us, they draw us in, they provide us with a compelling reason to continue reading (or watching). Will Harry triumph over Voldemort? Will they find out whodunit? What’s in that big bag, exactly?

All good stories share a few key elements, and they’re not really related to the plot.

The plot is the events which unfold. Mysteries have a plot archetype that’s going to differ from adventures which are going to differ from romances. But no matter what points get touched on and where the betrayals and heartbreaks occur, all good stories have 3 basic elements in common.

If you can learn to embed these three elements into your communications, will make the stories you tell (with or without the supplementation of data) much more effective.

The easiest way to remember this is to thin of the 3 Ps:

The 3 fundamental Elements of a Good Story are a Person, in a Place, with a Problem

A Person (aka “Characters”)

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This is the most basic of all. You absolutely need some kind of character with something to do. (Usually people but sometimes animals or AI stand in. I use “person” to be able to have the repetitive Ps. You know what I mean.) The narrator is often the main character (who the story revolves around), but sometimes it’s someone close who’s describing what the main character is doing.

A Place (aka “Setting”)

This is the setting or the location of the story. It could be a city, or a magical castle, or a library. It’s also may be a specific time in history: just before the battle of Agincourt, or in the year 3001. The point is, you don’t want to have things happen just “wherever”, they will need to be grounded in some kind of location. Your readers will want to know some specific, relevant details about where this is taking place.

pathway covered with green grass
Photo by Suraphat Nuea-on on

And be careful – don’t overkill by giving loads of minute descriptions that only serve to bore the reader. Make sure you follow the Goldilocks principle: not too much, not too little… just right.

A Problem (aka “Conflict”)

This is the challenge that the person must face and either overcome or fail to overcome at the end of the story. It could be that there’s now a dead man in a train car, and the characters need to figure out who did it before she or he does it again. Or it could be that your everyday kid has been bitten by a radioactive spider, and now he’s got to figure out how to harness his powers to stop an evil mastermind from destroying the city, while not accidentally using those powers to destroy the city.

Photo by Jaime Spaniol on Unsplash

You’ll need all 3 in order to have the basics of a good story. It’s not guaranteed, but let’s take a look at what happens when one of these elements is missing.

What Happens When One Element Is Missing?

Sure, you could try to write about a generic person and try to make it relevant to everyone across the world. But would it be that effective?


Let me say it again.

No. Definitively. Here’s the problem that arises when you miss out on just one of these elements, even if you include the other two:

A Person In a Place With No Problem

Well, now you just have a character sketch. And it might be a beautiful, literary portrait of what this person looks like and wants and believes. But without a problem, there’s nothing for this person to do. There’s no reason for the story other than presenting a bit of information. And just more information really isn’t that compelling. It’s like a picture on the wall. You can look at it for a minute or two, but then you’re ready to move on. If your writing has no problem, then the readers aren’t going to stay engaged.

A Place and a Problem, but No Person

Generic, all-encompassing stories about problems that affect nations or whole planets may be okay for making a point, but not for keeping a reader interested in finding out what happens next. If you’re telling a fable (a morality tale), maybe you can get away with this. “The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were horribly wicked in all their depravity.” Okay, again, that tells me of the place and the problem, but I don’t really care about anything that’s going on. So what if it’s a problem for that city? There’s nobody for me to connect with, and I won’t continue to read much beyond a page or two.

A Person with a Problem, Without a Place

You may think this is a possibility to still make a good story, but you’d be wrong. The lack of place means that, again, there is no way for the reader to make connections with the person and the problem. The reader’s going to think, “Yeah, but there’s no way that could happen to me. All that is happening in some far-off galaxy.”

Remember, even Star Wars, that was set in a galaxy far, far away, had people, places, and problems we all could relate to: cities and homes, personal relationships, angry youths rebelling against the “unjust” structures of their families, and threats of destruction from without.

When you have no place (no location), it’s sometimes called “white room syndrome”, i.e. “These people were just kind of sitting around in some blank room.” It’s hard to imagine it’s real without those critical, specific details that bring it home for the reader.

Applying the 3 Ps to Nonfiction or Business Writing

Above I promised to include some tips for how to apply the 3P principle to nonfiction or business-related writing. However, this article has gone on longer than I thought it would. So I’m going to give just a teaser and say that the next blog post (I promise no later than 2 days from now) will have those tips. Until then, remember to include the 3Ps when you’re telling a story: a person (character or characters), in a place (setting), had a problem (conflict) to solve. Tell us how they solve it (or don’t), and that’s the basis of a good story.

craft, fundraising industry

Knowing Your Enemy

Today’s entry was inspired by Kristina Leroux’s post, Writing Assignment: Knowing Your Enemy, on the Nonprofit Marketing Guide blog. She challenged the reader to personify the enemy, whether that enemy is homelessness, apathy, greed, sloth, or something else. During an AFP event a few weeks ago I heard from Jim Schallom at Sherwood Forest that the enemy for fundraisers is “Starbucks”, or the general consumerist mindset. That’s been on my mind, and this challenge completely integrated my fundraising and fiction writing minds.

So here it is:

Dee Dee versus The StarBuck

In the still morning light, before the armies massed at the opposite edges of the valley slopes are fully awake, Edie and Dee Dee walk carefully along a dew-covered path. “I know you’re scared, Dee Dee”, says Edie. “But I believe in you. You’ve been preparing for this moment a long time.” She grasps Dee Dee’s shoulder, and the connection immediately encourages Dee Dee’s troubled heart.

“Yes,” she admits. She doesn’t want to fear, she trusts her training, and she knows that she is on the good side in this fight. But the idea of her upcoming battle with The StarBuck, their nemesis, the bane of their existence, looms large in her mind. She stoops down to the path and gathers a handful of pebbles, dumping them into her supply sack at her waist. Still… “Yes, I’m scared. I know how important this is to all of us.”

“I believe in you,” Edie says. “I wouldn’t have trusted you with such responsibility otherwise.” Dee Dee knows she is telling the truth, and yet the challenge still brings butterflies to her stomach.

Their brief walk returns Edie and Dee Dee to their army’s campsite. Tents fill the small plain in haphazard clumps; volunteers, advocates, and employees alike wander throughout, preparing for the day. A buzz of conversation rises over the morning cookfires, and any who see them give a smile. Today is the day. It is the start of the Annual Campaign. And for the first time Dee Dee, instead of Edie, is to lead the charge.

Across the valley the enemy waits. They go by many names and nicknames, but the most common is “The Something Betters”. That is, everyone over there always has something better to do with their time, their money, their advocacy, than to give it to this side over here, where there is good to be done. Something better like a phone upgrade. Something better like a new automobile lease. Something better like an extra manicure this month, because, well, reasons.

Edie and Dee Dee, though, lead the army fighting the battle to save local homeless animals, to provide them places to live and to provide loving companions for their human partners. They work to make all lives better in the community, not just provide a little more entertainment. And it is sometimes disappointing to see how little progress gets made.

Because so many of the surrounding villagers just don’t know what’s happening. They don’t know of this battle waged here, in this Valley of Public Opinion, to keep the shelters open. They don’t know how the battle is fought for the division of wallets and attention, every day, every week, ever month, every year. They of course have time to keep up with all about the latest government scandals, they know what’s happening half a continent away in the fashion capital of the world, and yet so much opportunity is missed here at home to make a better life with such a small effort. Edie and Dee Dee and their army fight, every day, against the Something Betters, in order to bring about that satisfying community that everyone so deserves.

Today Dee Dee will meet The StarBuck, at noon, in the middle of the plain, to do battle, to fight, to compete for the attention of the world. Should she triumph, her shelter will have earned yet another temporary reprieve. Temporary, for there will always be another Something Better coming along to take its place, and the fight will wage on. Should she fail… Well, that is an option too tragic to consider.

The sun beats hard on the plain as the two armies begin their descent. Dee Dee leads her pack, Edie follows at the rear. Across the way, she can see that The StarBuck, her rival, leading a similar army. She gathers her nerve; this is most important. All those behind her are counting on her to deliver.

They approach, these massed brigades, to support their avatars in this battle. They know that their future, too, hinges on the success or failure of the two who represent them. They stop and wait, in silent anticipation, tension building as Dee Dee and The StarBuck approach one another.

The StarBuck is large, three feet taller than Dee Dee at least. His stout body and broad shoulders bear leather armor destined to rebut the slights of opinion arrows pointed at him. Everyone knows his reputation, too, as a thief, arms snatching coins from unsuspecting consumers with a little drip here, a little dab there, insidiously expanding his effect every day. His armor is decorated with hundreds, perhaps a thousand, shiny baubles proclaiming themselves the Newest! Cheapest! Fastest! Best! He attracts his prey, and they come close, close enough for him to rob their pockets while they are distracted, and after he leaves them wondering just where all their money went.

Dee Dee is armed, though, with her weapons of choice. The stones in her sack represent all her tools, all her little tricks she has picked up along the years. She knows she will not convince The StarBuck to retreat with words, so she remains silent while he shouts.

“Ha ha, little one!” His voice rings out over the masses. “You have nothing. Nothing! What do you give them?” He sweeps an arm to indicate the whole world. “Better? Faster? Tastier? No! Not even a guarantee. You give them nothing! You should walk away now, before we destroy you forever.” He sneers, and Dee Dee can see the bright white of his teeth, many shades whiter than normal, only available through the latest and greatest bleaching technique. He reaches into his pack and pulls out a mug, tossing it across the space to her. It bounces and spills, double-mocha extra whip foaming across the grass. “Here,” he says, “drown your sorrows in that and be gone.”

Dee Dee stares at the pointless waste, and says nothing. Instead, she reaches into her sack and takes out a stone. On it are etched the words “Direct Mail Campaign: 345 adoptions last year”. She places the stone into her sling, winds, and fires, the missile aiming directly for The StarBuck’s exposed head. It strikes him on the chin and rocks him backwards. The next says “Case Study: How We Educated 912 With FREE Classes”, and it connects with his temple. The StarBuck is wounded, dizzy, staggering. She loads up yet another.

“E-mail follow-up: Partnerships with hundreds of businesses and thousands of volunteers” flies across the space, strikes the StarBuck at the cheek, and spins him around. He staggers but does not fall. His strength and resilience are evident. Dee Dee has one last chance. She takes out the largest, heaviest stone from her bag. On it is written “Matching Gifts”, and she loads it into her sling. She feels the weight, the power, the importance of this moment. Her arm winds up; she releases just as The StarBuck turns to face her once more.

The stone arcs towards him, in silent slow motion as the massed crowds wait breathless, and as it strikes him between the eyes he rocks back, back, back, until the only sound is a loud crash as The StarBuck hits the ground.

Nobody moves.

And then, from behind her, a cheer erupts, as her dedicated soldiers watch the Something Betters launch into disarray and scatter. They flee at the loss of their leader; they run back to their hiding holes in the discount marts and strip malls and e-tailers. Dee Dee has won the day; she and the army have saved the shelter for another year.

Edie appears beside Dee Dee and gives her another hug. “Well done,” she says, “I knew you would do it,” and Dee Dee floats on the emotional high of the moment, feeling hundreds of hands pressing in to congratulate her too. Her smile overwhelms her, and she cannot turn it off. Why should she? The Annual Campaign is a success, and for one more year there will be contentment in the village.