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.