Show Don’t Tell

Published on 2019-07-23

Author: David Buckley


“Show don’t tell” is a literary term used by the best authors and writers. It is one of the cast-in-stone laws of great writing. Movie directors also use this principle to engage their audiences.

Writers and movie directors lose sleep over being told by a critic they are guilty of telling rather than showing the reader or audience.

“Show don’t tell” is used to draw the audience or reader into the story and let them become more emotionally attached to the characters in the story. This makes us feel more invested because we begin to feel what they feel. We really want them to win the girl, beat the bad guy or discover the buried treasure.

You can also use this technique when talking to your clients. You can use show don’t tell in a presentation, in writing an e-mail or just having a face-to-face conversation with a new client.


Show Don’t Tell in the Movies

Using movies is a good way to talk about show don’t tell as we are all familiar with how they work. Movie directors and screenwriters use show don’t tell all the time.

They show us the hero’s life — they don’t tell us about him.

So, for example, we might have a hero in a movie — just an ordinary guy. But he’s having a really bad day.

As we watch the movie we find out that his wife has left him, his car has broken down, he is behind with the rent and his boss is on his back.

We become emotionally involved with the hero and his life because we can understand what he is going through. And the director did this by drip-feeding all the clues about the hero’s ‘bad day’ to us piece by piece.

We put these clues together and we find that the poor guy is having a terrible time.

If the director started the movie with a piece of text that said:

The hero is having a really bad time lately.

And then listed all the reasons why, like this:

  • Wife left him
  • Car broken down
  • Behind with the rent
  • Boss angry

We would just think so what? We would have no emotional involvement — and therefore no sympathy — because the director told us all this information, he didn’t show us.

You need to take care of this when dealing with your clients. It is much better to show them than tell them.


Some Key Points to Remember

Let me give you three important factors to remember when using show don’t tell and talking to your clients.


Draw your Client into a Story

People like stories.

That’s why there are so many books, movies, comics, TV shows…

Use stories when talking to your client. Draw him into the story of your product or service and allow him to guess what you are saying. He will piece all the information together and then believe he came up with the idea.

Create a setting for your story — where it takes place, who the main players are, the goals, the obstacles.

Use dialogue. This works much better than you narrating the story to your client — this happened, then this happened, then that happened. Use conversations. People respond well to this.

Use these techniques and pull your client into the story and watch as he becomes emotionally engaged.


Don’t talk about you and your company — avoid me, me, me

You need to resist the temptation to march into your client’s office or into a sales presentation yelling We are the greatest! while banging a big bass drum.

You need to show him you are the greatest. Don’t tell your client how fantastic your company is—show him.

Let him see examples from existing clients’ stories, let these clients’ stories do all the work for you through their experience.

No need to shout from the rooftops that your product or service is the best thing in the world — show it through story and in action.


Avoid facts, figures, numbers and graphs

Instead of telling the audience about facts, figures and numbers about your product or service, try to paint a visual picture for him instead.

I get it — there is a strong urge to tell the client everything you think they need to know about your company. The problem with doing this is that all this information is only fascinating to you. To the client, it is dull, dull, dull.

All these numbers look great on paper but what you want your client to experience is the roller-coaster ride of how you arrived at those numbers.

But all too often we forget this when presenting our product, service or company and we nose-dive into all the boring details and mind-numbing numbers.

Stories are much more memorable than data.


Find the Pain Point

Every story has conflict.

There is that point of tension in the movie or novel and we get excited as the hero struggles to get out of the situation he is in.

Your client also has conflict in his story — that is why you are talking to him.

But what you need to do is isolate the pain point. What is it exactly that is causing him so much grief? What is making his life so difficult that he needs your product or service to make the pain vanish?

Find that and exploit it. Only a little, we don’t want to hurt the poor guy.

Use show don’t tell to help the client relieve his pain and win him over.


Benefits not Features

When talking about their product or service most people talk about the features.

This is telling. You don’t want to tell — you want to show.

So how to show the features?

Talk about the benefits.

Once you talk about the benefits of your product to the client, he can become emotionally attached. He is emotionally attached because he can understand what the benefits are to him.

This is why I said that facts, numbers, details are irrelevant. The client can find no feeling in that.

Instead of talking about how fast the car is — describe the sheer rush that the client can feel as he puts his foot on the accelerator.

Remember what we said at the beginning? Put your client in the story. Make him feel it.

You can do this by talking about the benefits and not telling him about the features.


Tell the Story of a Previous Client

The best way to talk about the benefits of your product or service is to tell a story from a previous client.

Talk about the benefits from the point of view of an existing client. Now the new client can really understand. Now he is emotionally engaged.

No more me, me, me — now you are using he, she and they. This simple move from I and me to he or she helps you to show the product to your client and avoid telling him about it.

Feed the benefits to the client through your story. Give him the clues to how great your product is and help him remove the pain point.

Just like the director showed us all the information about the hero in the movie.

You can do it in exactly the same way, describing all the benefits of your product in your story.


Let’s make up an example

So you want the client to have emotional engagement. And the best way to help him gain that is by letting him believe that he assembled all the pieces of information together by himself.

No need to yell in his face about all the detailed features of your product.


Imagine your company makes ray-guns. Just like the ray-guns from those old science-fiction movies. Except these are supersonic. And they operate at the speed of light. Plus the ray-gun fits in your hand like it was made to measure. Oh, and they are light as a feather.

You can go through all the features but it just leaves your client cold.

You need to engage him.


Now tell the existing client’s story

Your client doesn’t talk about how fast your ray-gun is. He doesn’t mention how many warp-factors per micro-second or how many milligrams it weighs in his hand.

The way your previous client talks about is through his story that shows how the ray-gun made his pain point – the aliens – vanish.

So how does he do that?

He talks about how his kids can play outside without him worrying about extra-terrestrials causing them any harm. He mentions that his wife is able to go and visit the neighbours without being abducted and taken off to Mars. He talks about how safe his neighbourhood is these days.

There are certain phrases that your old client used when talking about the ray-gun – use those lines yourself. They add humanity. They make the whole situation of the ray-gun and its purpose more valid, more real.

You need to be authentic.

The client doesn’t tell you about the actual ray-gun itself. He talks about the domino effect of owning the ray-gun. By doing this he is showing the ray-gun and not telling.



I know you’re not selling ray guns—or maybe you are and if so good luck with that—but try telling the story of your product using these methods.

Avoid talking about the features — instead, talk about the benefits.

Avoid using first-person words — I, me, us, we, our company. Use he, she, they, them, their.

Now you are showing — not telling.

Draw the client into the story of your product, let him become emotionally attached as you feed him small pieces of information about your product.

Let him assemble all these parts together and he will believe that it was his choice to buy from you.

When in fact it was your doing all along.

How clever!