Show don’t tell — what does that mean?

Show don’t tell is advice given to writers. It means to show your readers what you’re writing about, using description or demonstration rather than simply explaining it.

How it applies in fiction

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
~ Anton Chekhov

Broken-glass-on-dark-background-with-white- light-shining-on-it
Image by Marcela Bolívar from Pixabay

Show don’t tell is advice most commonly given to fiction writers, because it helps readers to paint a mental picture — as illustrated in Anton Chekhov’s quote, above.

People read fiction for pleasure and being able to imagine the scenes the writer is creating is all part of the experience. The writer might also use the advice to create an impression or a feeling — like showing the way a character behaves rather than telling the reader what they’re thinking.

How it applies in copywriting

The advice can be used in copywriting, too — but only in certain circumstances.

With business copy, you can’t afford to be subtle. Anything that’s merely implied or suggested could be lost. So, for the most part, copy needs to be direct, explicit and get to the point quickly.

However, there are some things a business should never have to tell its audience — and that’s where show don’t tell comes in.

Copywriters usually show and tell

In copywriting, we usually show and tell — because one backs up the other and makes whatever you’re writing more compelling and powerful.

For example:

When selling a luxury item

If you’re describing the components of a piece of jewellery, you’d tell the reader about the quality of the gold, the clarity of the diamond, the stunning design and the superior craftsmanship. And for them to really appreciate all that, you’d also show them the piece.

When supporting a cause you believe in

If you support a cause that means something to you, you’d tell your social media followers about it and back it up with actions that show your support. Like posting about a charity and fundraising for that charity or posting about equal opportunities and having equal opportunities policies in place.

When writing a case study

If a project has gone well and you want to use it for promoting your services, you’d use a case study format to tell your readers about what you did and show them the results you achieved.

When demonstrating a product

If you’re demonstrating a product, you’d tell the reader what the product can do, then either show it in action or show the results it will achieve.

When does show don’t tell apply?

In copywriting, you should use show don’t tell:

When telling might make you sound conceited

For example: “We’re amazing at what we do.”

Telling your readers how great you are can make you seem smug and self-satisfied, which probably isn’t how you want to come across to them.

But showing them how great you are will give them reason to believe it.

When telling doesn’t prove anything

For example: “We believe every customer is different.”

Or “We want every customer to be completely satisfied.”

I should hope so!

Statements like these are meaningless — and they’re things most readers will expect from you as a matter of course.

They’re things you should never have to tell your readers, but you should be able to show them.

When telling might seem disingenuous

For example:“We’re passionate about what we do.”

Are you, really, though?

Statements like this have become clichéd, empty, and mostly unbelievable.

You’re passionate about fixing toilets? No, I didn’t think so.

And so what if you are passionate? How does that help your customers?

It’s much more compelling and tangible to show you care deeply about what you do.

How to show your audience

They say actions speak louder than words — and that’s exactly what we mean when we talk about show don’t tell in copywriting.

Here are some examples of where your actions will say it better than words.

Actively support the causes you believe in

Supporting causes that are important to you can be an excellent way to show your values and what you stand for as a business. But if you’re telling your audience you support a cause you need to make sure your actions are aligned.

Photo by Monstera at Pexels

In 2022, a journalist and her partner set up a gender pay gap bot on Twitter to expose companies that were posting in support of International Women’s Day, but still had a gender pay gap in place. It was damning for the companies being called out for their duplicity.

With causes, it’s sensible to avoid jumping on every bandwagon and only talk about causes you’re truly passionate about and where you’re actively making a difference.

For example, that might be supporting:

  • A charity by donating money, services or resources
  • Minority groups by having diversity targets
  • Sustainability with specific policies and initiatives
  • Gender equality with equal rights and pay
  • Your local community by giving something back.

Practise what you preach

If you’re recommending your audience to take a particular course of action it’s always more compelling if you can show that you’ve followed your own advice.

For example, I believe in the power of blogging and recommend it to all my followers as a way of generating leads. And here I am, blogging for my own business, which gives credibility to my advice.

Be descriptive

Writing good descriptions help you show with your words. Use adjectives that stimulate your readers’ senses to help them conceive what you’re talking about.

For example, a simple chocolate cake could become: a rich, indulgent chocolate brownie, topped with a gooey dark chocolate glaze and sprinkled generously with earthy chopped walnuts.

A walk along the beach could become: walking along a sun-kissed beach with palm trees gently rustling in the sea breeze and warm sand between your toes.

Treat your customers well

We’ve all experienced situations like the one pictured below. So we know when a company tells its customers how important they are, it doesn’t always count for much.

Original photo by Ron Lach from Pexels

It’s much more believable when you show your customers how important they are to you in the way you treat them.

You can do this by:

  • Making things easy and convenient for them
  • Offering bonuses, rewards and freebies
  • Responding quickly to queries and problems
  • Giving clear assurances and guarantees.

For example, your phone service might promise:

  • Calls answered within five rings
  • The promise of being able to speak to a human
  • A free callback service so customers aren’t inconvenienced.

Show what’s involved

You can demonstrate quality and value by showing things like:

  • Your process and how you work
  • How long each step takes and what’s involved
  • The materials/ingredients/techniques you’re using
  • The quality control measures you have in place.

Use the right tone of voice in your copy

A brand can tell you that it’s fun and quirky while having the most boring and monotonous copy you’ve ever read. Or it can show you it’s fun and quirky in everything it does — starting with the tone of its copy.

Your brand tone of voice can show your:

  • Passion and enthusiasm
  • Sense of humour and fun
  • Compassion and warmth
  • Fire and determination
  • Quirkiness and eccentricity.

It can communicate things you want to your readers to know about you without actually telling them anything.

Let your audience imagine

Telling your readers about what you do isn’t as inspiring as showing them.

When you show them, it helps your readers to imagine what you’re offering and whether it’s right for them.

  • Your copy will show your personality so they can decide if you’re a brand they’d like to work with
  • Storytelling will show them how your product/service will solve their problem and fit into their lives
  • A free sample or trial will show them how your product/service works so they can see how it will benefit them.

Have policies in place

Your company policies will show a genuine commitment to tackling various issues.

That might be:

  • Employee rights, benefits and opportunities
  • Environmental and social responsibilities
  • Customer satisfaction guarantees
  • Local community matters
  • Diversity and inclusion.

Let your customers do the talking

If you’re telling your audience how great you are, there’s no reason for them to believe it.

But if it’s your customers doing the telling, that actually means something.

You can ask your happy customers for reviews or testimonials. Or make their testimony part of a case study in which you talk about their project, what you did for them and what the results were.

Show your results

If you want to show that your methods work, show the results you’re getting.

Line graph with multiple lines in different colours
Image by Mediamodifier from Pixabay

For example, you could show your results in the form of:

  • Specific examples
  • Case studies
  • Before and after photos
  • A percentage change
  • A table, line graph or chart.

Are you telling when you should be showing?

Would you like some help to fix that and make your copy work harder for your business?

I’m Jenny Lucas, a freelance copywriter and content writer based in Leicester, UK. And I’m a huge advocate of showing and telling in your business copy.

To find out more about me and how I could help you make your copy work harder for you, visit my main website or send me a message.

Photo by Matt Glover Photography