Why “Show, Don’t Tell” Is Bad Advice for Marketers

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“Show, don’t tell” is great advice…when you’re not marketing or copywriting. Poets or fiction writers using this technique will find it very efficient.

Their audience is, after all, reading for entertainment. They want to feel the story. But marketing and copywriting has different rules. For example, you can imagine that immersing your audience into your story takes time. Time that your clients don’t have.

Clients are solution-driven. They want answers and solutions right now. A hundred pages of set up to make them feel something will result in crickets. You only have a few seconds to catch their attention before they’re long gone for you to do anything.

You see now that “show, don’t tell” doesn’t work as well as you thought. “Tell, don’t show” obviously doesn’t work either. I believe copywriters would gain a lot by switching to the third team: “Show and Tell”.

The Tell

The tell is your jab, your first impression, your first sentence. Everything your client needs to start is laid out for her. There’s no need nor room for any imagination or reflection efforts on her part. She’s either in or out.

It is your first interaction with your audience, whether in an article, an e-mail, a lead magnet, an ad, or a post-it on her gym-locker — creepy. You don’t want her wondering who you are, how you can help her, or what’s the next step.

She must understand all those things. When you need to make an impression fast, don’t leave things for interpretation. Tell them as they are.

That’s what I do for my own e-mail list. On my landing page, what you’ll receive is clearly stated. Either you want it or not.

The hot gal you’ve been exchanging looks with is about to leave the bar. Is it really the time to keep playing hard to get or send subliminal messages? No, of course not. You get up and take your shot before she leaves forever.

The same goes for your potential clients scrolling through Instagram. With an ever-increasing amount of choices available and less time to catch their attention, will implying and hoping they get your subtle message work better than stating how you can help them? Of course not.

However, focusing too much on telling can backfire. It’ll feel like you’re forcing your prospects' hands. As if you’re not giving him a choice or truly listening to him.

Your client also needs to imagine a better future for himself using your product. Therefore, closing off your copy to all possible interpretations and imaginations will do more harm than good.

The Show

Showing is creating a visual in your prospects' minds. Those pictures are more powerful than any word you can come up with. It generates all the powerful and sticky emotions that telling will never be able to.

The perfect example is Trump’s wall. Saying “we need to up surveillance on the border” wouldn’t have had the same effect as “We’re gonna build a wall between us and them.” From all the edgy statements he tells on the daily, it’s this image of a wall separating two countries that stuck with us.

The showing is where you illustrate the problem and where you make your client imagine a better future for himself. Just as you can’t have a copy filled with telling, you can’t show with every word. When showing, you’re letting the reader form his own opinion.

As a matter of fact, you should do that, to a certain extent. You have to let readers form their own conclusions.

Still, your readers are task-driven, they want instant gratification. You also don’t want to run the risk of having your reader misunderstand a key element of your copy.

Finally, you want to make sure your client is still in the direction of the sale, sign-up, or whatever your end goal is. That’s why you need to balance those two elements in your copy.

How to Use “Show and Tell” for Yourself

The decision to buy is your client’s and your client’s only. You can only direct him in the desired direction. Your client must feel like it’s his decision to buy your product.

That’s where “show and tell” shines best.

Telling will pop a question in your prospect’s mind, and showing will make him form his own conclusions.

Start by telling, and when it’s time for showing:

Use examples or stories

You’ve seen them before, all those “How I Earned My First $1000 on Medium” stories. And even though, most of them are similar and don’t add much, they’re successful. It’s the perfect example of “show and tell.”

The writer uses her own story for that. She’s telling you she did what you’re out for, and she’s about to show you how.

In content marketing, you’re teaching something. Map out the journey for your reader. Understanding the problem, how to overcome it, and life after the problem.

“Telling and showing is the two-punch winning technique of any educational writing.” ~ Henneke

Tell the idea, then show it through examples or stories.

“With Google Maps, you can say farewell to traffic rage. You can rest your mind: Our new advanced systems will notify you whenever you’re about to run into traffic and will direct you in a more convenient direction. Avoid the traffic, get to your destination in time, and on top of it all, keep your sanity.”

I first told readers that Google Maps is the best app to avoid traffic. Those interested will now continue to read and are at the point to be shown why it’s the best navigation app.

Examples of Show and Tell

Apple’s iPhone 11

“Just the right amount of everything.
A new dual camera system captures more of what you see and love. The fastest chip ever in a smartphone and all-day battery life let you do more and charge less. And the highest-quality video in a smartphone, so your memories look better than ever.”

This phone is the best one ever designed and, reading the body, we imagine what it would be like to own it. No more begging for an external battery charger or low-quality photos of the marvelous sunset you’ll never share with anyone, but so desperately want to.

Nike Metcon 5

“The Nike Metcon 5 is our most tuned Metcon yet. This means specific stability for heavy lifting, traction made for speed, and durability where you need it. It even includes a Hyperlift insert that’s compatible with all prior versions of the Metcon. Meet your secret weapon for weight lifting and high-impact training.”

Nike starts with a Tell. Their best Metcon Yet. They then go on to show all the benefits and ends by telling one more time that the Metcon 5 is your best training partner.

Beats by Dre’s Solo Pro

“Immerse yourself in your music.
With an advanced acoustic platform and noise canceling, Solo Pro ensures you’ll always have the right sound for the right situation.”

An interesting role reversal by Beats. They started off with a show, the rest of the copy tells us how by sharing the details of the process.

You can now imagine yourself still being immersed in your music even on a plane with a child crying behind you. And “the right sound for the right situation” makes it easier not to worry about getting hit by a car when walking.

Only telling is boring. That may be how you catch your readers' attention but alone isn’t useful and won’t convert as much as you want.

Showing alone takes too much time that your average reader isn’t ready to give right away. You might get away with it in a newsletter since the reader already knows you but in content marketing or a lead magnet that’s a big no-no.

Show and tell is the holy grail. You start by telling. And if you do it right, prospects will be interested in you and will start imagining the pictures you’re about to show them.

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