“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
― Anton Chekhov
Imagine you’re talking with someone who is describing the beautiful moon last night. Which of these two descriptions engages you more: Knowing the fact that the moon was shining? Or hearing about how the light glints when reflecting on a shard of glass?
As Chekhov knew so well, engaging audiences is about much more than making sure you use correct grammar and share the surface-level point you need to make. Arresting content comes alive with its word choice and language — and draws you in to compel you.
But how do you create messaging with that power? While a variety of strategies go into creating clear, compelling content, one of the best techniques is “show, don’t tell.”
Simply put, this writing strategy invites readers to experience your messaging, rather than just hear about them. Showing often involves intriguing details, informative visuals, and an inviting tone. Telling, on the other hand, relies on instructions, descriptions, and direct appeals. The strongest language shows, but you may also need to use a mix of show and tell in your writing.
Using Show, Don’t Tell in Your Content
Experience is a powerful motivator. Scientists now believe that some experiences are so powerful they change our brains forever. When we learn, we deepen the connections our brains make and how we make sense of the world.
Since our brains have such plasticity, the powerful content experiences you create for your readers will activate these connections. To take advantage of this natural process — and use it to engage readers — you should create content that brings them into the moment, letting them smell and see and feel as much as possible.
Plus, our emotions drive our decision-making before our logic does. To reach these appeals, your audience needs language that helps them to emotionally connect.
Here’s an example:
Tell: Our company cares deeply about the environment, and we work hard to build our business in an environmentally conscious way.
Show: Our headquarters recently made the switch to 100% renewable energy. We’re on track to cut our yearly waste by 1/3 and meet our annual environmental impact goals.
If you followed each of these hypothetical sentences with an invitation to “learn more about how we cut costs,” which one would be more tempting? We believe most readers would choose the showing sentence, because it offers interesting details that show how they care about the environment, rather than just stating that they do. Remember: Anyone can state something — it’s actions that bring those statements to life and give them truth.
Businesses, especially those who rely on growing their audiences online, know that before you can sell a product, you have to get someone’s attention. No matter what industry you’re in or what your content strategy may be, your communications should appeal to people’s senses with engaging details.
Showing Them the Way
Sometimes telling is the best way to communicate information, especially when you’re communicating facts or figures. If your product or service is the best option on the market, let people know! But, take the opportunity to combine that telling with some showing. Here’s an example:
Tell: Our truck was awarded best in class and earned the highest safety rating possible.
Show + Tell: Earning Best in Class and the highest safety rating awards took an army. Teams of engineers, safety specialists, and automotive designers worked for 26 months just to come up with a prototype. We invested over 50,000 hours into bringing this truck to life.
In the “show + tell” example above, we use numbers and periods of time to allow our audience to visualize the massive team and dedication it took to earn these awards. The first example gave the facts, while the second example framed those facts with details that leave a strong impression.
Remember, you only have a short amount of time to engage your audiences within a dense content landscape before they choose not to pay attention. Any opportunity you have to deepen the experience and ignite our senses — and boost positive neural connections in our brains — will keep audiences coming back to you for more. Through clear, compelling content, you can drive them to read, connect, and act — and move your business goals forward.