What does “show don’t tell” really mean?

Ben Okri quote offering a different take on show don't tell at http://NanetteLevin.com

There are some pretty hilarious parodies out there mocking novelists who take this too far. This is a common phrase uttered in the book industry, but it’s becoming vogue with online (self-proclaimed) gurus too. Hmmm – maybe it’s time someone lampooned that segment. Perhaps another day.

The premise behind “show, don’t tell” (particularly as it is used in modern marketing vernacular) is that people remember stories better than tutorials – or character descriptions.

This actually has a lot of merit – in moderation. Blog writers can be more effective in identifying with their audience and spurring that “stay tuned” reader urge when stories are included in content.

Does this mean it’s smart to make every blog post about your personal history? Unless that’s why people come to read your material, that’s probably not wise.

There are some who do this artfully, including a few homesteaders and humor-focused content writers. Check out Just Typikel, an Inspired Blogging Group member blog, as an example of the latter, done well.

During the month of May, we’ll be hosting a Blog Challenge on the Facebook Inspired Blogging Group (this is a closed group, but we’re happy to approve invitation requests from anyone who blogs regularly and is willing to adhere to our minimal rules – the most important being at least two comments on other blogs per week). Leading up to and during the Challenge, Amy Potkonen and I (the co-managers) will be providing ideas, quick tips and posts to help you enhance your blog experience. This article is part of that.

Blogging to affect your readers

Ben Okri quote offering a different take on show don't tell at http://NanetteLevin.comFor most bloggers, particularly those who seek to realize some revenue from their efforts, “show don’t tell” is something that should be about explaining things in a way that makes it easier for your readers to understand. This applies not only to your posts, but also what you include on the pages of your website.

This could involve testimonials. Depending on what you do, video can be very effective. If you have client challenge and solution examples you can use as content to help readers see how what you offer might pertain to them (be very careful here – helping is fine, bragging, not so much), that’s a great way to show. Occasionally offering personal anecdotes is effective too – so long as you make most posts more about your readers than you.

Good story telling is an art. Most draw on personal experience to craft the tale. The key comes in grabbing your readers in a way that has them wanting to know more. Offering stories to help the reader identify with you, better understand what you offer, more easily apply what you are suggesting and to better remember you and your advice provides a powerful tool in your blogging mix.

The challenge comes in knowing when such a device will enhance what you’re trying to impart without coming off as staged. Part of this involves writing talent. Most of it can be gathered by trusting your gut – and hearing the cues offered by your readers (or clients).

“Show don’t tell” is basically about offering ideas in a way that includes stories – and mood enhancing details. Think about how you want your readers (or watchers, or listeners) to feel. What do you want them to take-away? Can you include a story to help make your point easier to understand or more memorable? Can you use an analogy? Can you illustrate your point in a way that is less instructional and more personable?

Think about how you got excited about learning then sharing what you now know. Use that early excitement experience to offer insight for crafting blogging strategies that will have high appeal. Tell your story, share your client success trajectories (have you considered interviewing your clients for blog post fodder?), offer observations, build on a quote or find something most can identify with (traveling, animals, families, living space, retail outings, cooking, etc.) and use it as the basis for an analogy.

There are tons of ways to tell a story that can engage and fascinate your readers. Most don’t care what you had for breakfast (unless you’re a health professional offering recipes). Almost everyone will identify with something that’s written (or recorded) to provide fun and easy ways to solve frustrations with illustrative examples.

Inspired Blogging Challenge in May

If you’re interested in getting engaged with a supportive and inventive crew, the Inspired Blogging Facebook Group can provide this (you must ask to join and be approved for this private group). Now’s a good time to get to know the players prior to the May Challenge (participation is optional – but why wouldn’t you want to join in on the fun?).

Story telling will be a subject of discussion as part of this challenge. Why not share yours?

12 responses to “What does “show don’t tell” really mean?”

  1. Thank you so very much for your kind words, Nanette and the link to my site. I do appreciate it.
    I cannot agree with you more about the importance of showing not telling. I learned about this in my very first online writing course. Our teacher stressed the need to slow down as you shared. I had a tendency to zip through and she advised me to include the bits I was zipping over.
    I look forward to hearing about more of the May Challenge details!

    • Curiously, Kelly, this was the quote I was initially planning to use to support the post: “Begin challenging your own assumptions. Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once and a while, or the light won’t come in.” – Alan Alda

  2. This is an important concept. I know that I must tell some stories but if you ask me what they are, I will look at you blankly and no words will come out. I am super psyched about the challenge. As I am putting together the daily emails, I am realizing that this is going to be amazing! (Is that too much bragging?) 😉

    • You tell a lot of stories, Amy – and you do it well. Your style is to make things personal to you, which is story telling ;-). I’m looking forward to the Challenge too. Certainly not too much bragging – your energy is infectious.

  3. I take what you wrote to heart. Curious about this since when I first began, I didn’t ever talk about myself and I was told by several people that I needed to be more personal because my posts were filled with ‘tips’ but people needed to find me relatable and not so ‘matter-of-fact’.

    I am curious, how do we know what the balance is? As I read this I was thinking maybe I need to go back to when I didn’t share (which is more my style being such a private person).

    I openly welcome suggestions, Nanette. Thank you for another great post!

    • I’m with you, Elda. Sharing a lot of personal information for the world to see isn’t something I’m comfortable with either. Story telling need not be about you. You may note I tend to rely on analogies or animals or client experiences or quotes or images to tell stories. It depends on what you’re doing and what you’re comfortable with. As to the balance – use it when it helps to convey what you’re trying to impart. Don’t throw it in there just to “be more personal” ;-).

  4. I love storytelling. Life is an experience and I feel the learning is best described in story form. This looks like it will be a fun adventure challenge 🙂

  5. From an ex-advertising person – I know that quote well – the bane of the radio industry (haha). But it is so true, the lovely stories reside in the little details. I was listening to something on NPR where people were telling stories that were out and out lies – and the wonderful things was the little details (a 13 year old won it). I’m looking forward to the challenge – it may be what I need to get me out of my funk of partially written blogs yet to be published.

    • Funny, this is the first time I’ve seen this quote, Vickie, but do not come from an agency background. Would have enjoyed hearing that 13 year old spin her tale. Please do come on board with the Inspired Blogging Challenge. Amy and I will be providing ideas daily but are thinking most will be posting weekly.

  6. Nanette,
    Such great tips you have laid out here. Good stories have always been a challenge for me but I like your suggestion about remembering what you were excited about in the beginning and then share that with others. I will give it a try, thanks!