Business writers: show, don’t tell

If you’ve ever taken a creative writing class, you’ll be familiar with the phrase “show, don’t tell”.

It’s the age-old exhortation not to describe what’s happening in the story, but rather to allow your reader to experience it through the characters’ actions, thoughts and feelings.

Now, we’re no novelists, but we still find ourselves saying “show, don’t tell” to clients several times a week. What we usually mean is “be concrete and specific, not abstract and general”.

Here’s an example of “telling”, from the home page of a large corporation:

What makes us different is our forward thinking approach to serving clients. We think creatively about business issues and are constantly looking for new and better ways to add value with truly innovative solutions that help to grow our clients’ businesses.

This paragraph is so full of generalised assertions that it’s impossible even to say what sector the company is in (leave your suggestions in the comments).

And rather than sounding different, the firm responsible for this cliché-stuffed paragraph sounds like every other big corporation out there.

Show, don’t tell: how to do it in your business writing
The secret to avoiding bland, meaningless statements like that above is this: don’t tell me how great your services are. Instead, show me what it feels like to be a client.

Don’t tell me your product is different. Tell me what it does for your customer that nothing else does.

And definitely don’t tweet that your blue-chip client just called to say how much they love you. I’ll be much more convinced of your abilities if you offer helpful tips that demonstrate your expertise, and share links that prove you’re in touch with the latest thinking in your field.

Some examples
Below are some examples of telling, followed by showing. Which version is more convincing – the one that tells or the one that shows?

Telling: “We’re a truly global research house”

Showing: “Need advice on how to expand into South Korea? We’ll put you in touch with our guys in Seoul. Thinking of investing in Brazil? Don’t do it until you’ve downloaded the latest report into the country’s emerging economic trends by our analysts in São Paulo.”

Telling: “We’re an award-winning cruise firm”

Showing: “Best Luxury Cruise Firm in the Travel Writers’ Awards 2011, Gold Medal in Chef! magazine’s On-Board Dining Awards 2011, No. 1 in The Happy Passenger‘s Readers’ Choice Awards 2011 (etc).”

Telling: “We’re proud of our consultative approach to recruitment”

Showing: “Finding you the right person for the job starts with understanding the team they’ll be joining. So our first step is to sit down with anyone who has an interest in the candidate. We’ll ask about the culture of your firm. Who your leaders are. What your business strategy is. And, crucially, where the new hire fits in.

It’s time well invested because it allows us to build a complete picture of the person you need. And that means, unlike some other recruiters, we don’t waste your time bombarding you with candidates who aren’t the right fit or who won’t stick around.”

In each case, the first version is the sort of bland corporate statement you’ll find on many a corporate website.

The second version paints a picture that gives potential customers a much clearer idea of what it’s like to do business with the people behind the words. Or it provides specific detail that backs up the claim.

The questions to ask
But what if you’re a writer who’s trying to get a senior executive to give you something more than “We pride ourselves on delivering innovative solutions for clients” or “We bring creativity to everything we do” or “We’re passionate about our work”?

You need to ask specific questions that will elicit examples of what they’re trying to describe, such as:

How does that innovation/creativity/passion work in practice?

How does your innovation/creativity/passion make you different from your competitors?

Can you talk me through a project where innovation/creativity/passion came into play?

Can you give me an example of a problem that was solved through innovation/creativity/passion?

Can you give me an example of that innovation/creativity/passion in action?

What does innovation/creativity/passion look like? (Works particularly well with someone you know to be highly visual.)

They’re mostly variations on the same question – the key is to find out which one works best with your executive. But we guarantee at least one of them will give you a story.

10 comments so far . . . come and pitch in!

  1. Alan Spedding says:

    Problem? ‘Showing’ takes more words than ‘telling’

  2. Clare Lynch says:

    That’s true, Alan. But at least the words are working hard for you. In contrast, the extract from the corporation’s home page, for example, uses lots of work but tells you absolutely nothing.

  3. Very practical tips on getting to the “show.” I make the comparison to dating sites. Everyone says, “I’m funny, smart, adventurous …” But instead of saying you’re funny, BE funny. Instead of saying you’re smart, talk about the last book you read. Instead of saying you’re adventurous, show me a picture of your white water rafting trip. The business equivalent is “We provide the highest quality, superior service, fastest turnaround, etc.” Don’t tell me — show me. Awards, accolades, rankings, testimonials, reviews, stories, even images, will all go much further in getting your point across. I talked about his on TV the other day, if you’re interested:

  4. Clare Lynch says:

    Thanks for stopping by, Rob. And great to discover your TV clip.

    Other readers, I heartily recommend it.

  5. Liat says:

    Rob, great example! Clare, I LOVE your blog – because of you my website is getting better every day!!

  6. Me, too — glad to have found your blog and looking forward to more!

  7. Kevin Mills says:

    The theory is fine and one I endorse 100%. But in practice you come up against limitations of space, as Alan says, and the limitations of clients’ imaginations.

    Sure, your ‘before’ examples are bland and largely meaningless. (Although they can be tweeted.) But to me they look like poorly-written subheads thatmost writers would invariably follow up with the kind of illustrative examples you provide in your ‘after’ alternatives.

    Clients willing (that’s the hard part), all the ‘before’ lines need is a bit of oomph and sparkle. Off the top of my head:

    We’re a truly global research house
    From Albania to Zimbabwe, we offer research you can trust

    We’re an award-winning cruise firm
    It’s almost as if we went cruising for awards…

    We’re proud of our consultative approach to recruitment
    Recruitment. Like the tango, it takes two

    It’s all subjective though. These might be shit.

  8. Paul Eveleigh says:

    Show, don’t tell means be specific. Avoid buzzwords/jargon. And let verbs do the rest.

  9. It’s true, in the blurb-focused, tweetable media ecology we all know and love, that showing takes more time, but there are a couple reasons this is worth the effort (and worth risking TLDR). In the “show” examples above, by describing something concrete, the description not only make an assertion that “x” is true but then gives evidence of why “x” is true. To a potential client, this paints a picture of what to expect — and sets the expectations that 1, the business in question has thought about how to solve these problems (e.g. create a global research house) and 2, that the consultancy in question has already prepared a roadmap for achieving certain goals (i.e. following through with effective recruitment). It is likely that some clients aren’t interested in “lots of words” — but it is also at least likely that those clients might well be a nightmare to work with (because of mixed expectations, unrealistic goals, or worse). A client who wants to know from the outset and in concrete terms how it is that you “synergize your core values to create market leading innovation” demonstrates up front a desire to cut through the BS and actually make something happen. As Kevin alludes to above, headers light on substance might still be useful to orient readers to where to find the meatier details. Failing to provide such “meatiness,” however, is essentially leaving potential clients hungry. If you’re lucky, these folks may reach out and ask if you have anything real to offer. But if a competitor is already providing something solid for them to sink their teeth into, why would they bother?

  10. Scot says:

    This is the kind of thing I think of whenever I see/hear the buzzword “proven”. For that claim, the obvious next question is, “How did you prove it? How about you provide some proof right now?”

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