Show don’t tell

By | February 15, 2016

The concept of “storytelling” is all the rage in this rambunctious and volatile century, particularly in marketing and communications. TV commercials are not product pitches – they’re “narratives”. CEOs don’t give speeches – they “tell stories”. Everyone is busy telling stories – to themselves, to their employees and to the world – whether they’re worth telling or not.

I’m mocking this, but only because it’s a trend, often tinged by the same pretention you find in a creative writing class (I speak from experience here).

But mocking aside, there is something incredibly compelling about stories. We love them. Stories engage and entertain us. They use suspense and high drama, humour and exaggeration to make a point, illuminate the human condition, expose folly, and celebrate accomplishment.

We’re been telling ourselves stories for a long, long time and will likely continue to tell stories as long as we can draw breath. Clearly storytelling is deep inside our genetic code.

You know this already. But I think there’s a dimension to storytelling that doesn’t get enough attention, and it could apply to business writers as well as to creative writers.

Beginning writers are told by their creative writing instructors to “show not tell”. Simply put, this means reveal your characters to the reader by having them do things and say things and react to things – not by giving the reader a laundry list of adjectives describing the kind of people they are.

For example.

As she entered her nineties, my mother, like many people her age, began a kind of life review – looking back to assess her accomplishments and shortcomings. On one of my Sunday visits to the seniors condo where she lived, I asked her to think about the happiest times in her life. She agreed. Two weeks later I came back and asked what she’d come up with. “Stephen,” she said, “I’ve thought very carefully about your question.” She paused, then went on. “The happiest times of my life were the ten years before you and your sister were born, and the ten years after you both had left home.”

My little story tells you a lot about my mother without my having to use a single adjective. If you want, you can supply the adjectives. My story is true, and its only bias is my decision to tell it to you in the first place.

Did you laugh or shake your head when you read my little story? That’s another powerful effect of stories that show instead of tell – they make us react, sometimes emotionally, other times intellectually or spiritually.

Why am I going on about this? Well, I think storytelling does have an important place in business communication. By showing instead of telling, we bring a kind of objective reality to our message that allows the audience to come closer to us and participate in the meaning we are trying to create. We show, they respond, and in a powerful way their response does the “telling” for us.

(My mother died in 2013, at the age of 94. The photo above was taken on a Caribbean cruise we took together in 2005 – her present to me when I finished my masters degree at UBC.)

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