One of the fundamentals of narrative writing is “show, don’t tell.” People retain stories and scenes better than they do a list of facts. Stories resonate more deeply with readers, creating more of an emotional engagement with the material at hand. For example, instead of writing, “The sun was shining,” provide the information in a narrative context, e.g., “Sunlight filtered through the pine trees, creating an ever-shifting series of shadows on the forest floor.”
“Show, don’t tell” is important for business and organizations, too. How many companies can you count that say they’re innovative, authentic and have integrity? Those words, like many others, have become so overused as to ultimately become meaningless. While shorthand is necessary – I use some of those words in my own bio – it’s essential that somewhere in your brand communications, you show how you embody those qualities. It can be a story that reflects those qualities, or it can be integrated into the language of your website, the topics you choose to emphasize in your blog.
Here’s why it’s important: When I read jargon or buzzwords, my response is probably the opposite of the writer’s goal: the impression I get is that the person writing it has no idea what they’re actually talking about; they’ve simply learned to parrot certain phrases. We are in an age of cynicism, especially about business, and if you want me, as an employee or customer or investor, to believe that you actually embody certain qualities, I need you to show me how you define those qualities and how I will experience them in your work.
For example: Instead of telling me you have integrity, show me what that means in your sector, your company, your life, the context of your narrative. Sure, integrity has dictionary definitions (1. the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness 2. the state of being whole and undivided), yet “moral” is relative, and most of us have encountered both people and businesses who claim “integrity” as a value without actually embodying it.
When I say I have integrity, I mean that I do what I say I’m going to do, to the very best of my ability. I mean that my thoughts, words and actions are in alignment, and that I am honest about my intentions. When I commit to a project, I commit to making it the best it can be. I don’t work with people or clients whose mission or actions contradict my values. My creativity actually doesn’t work in that way. I tried, once, during a “famine” phase, to write lead generation pages for a work-at-home scam. I was well aware (as was the client) that it was a scam, and despite working on it for three days, I couldn’t get words out that made sense. On a practical level, it was the simplest thing ever. Seriously. Like, less than 100 words. But my conscience protested and my skills went on vacation.
Another example: Don’t tell me you’re innovative. Show me what you do that’s different from anyone in your field. I recently worked with a small cross-border tax preparation firm. Accountants aren’t generally known for going against the status quo. But this team – most members of which had spent time with the big, corporate traditional firms – was proud of being different, and they were eager to show how they were different.
[Tweet “Don’t tell me you’re innovative. Show me what you do that’s different from anyone in your industry.”]
I took them through a few in-depth creative questions – designed to bypass the critical filter of the analytical mind (the part that says, “No, don’t say that! That’s just not done in our field!”). And the result is a site that, visually, is fairly small-business standard, but the language is unlike any other firm in their space. Throughout the site, there are examples of their values in action. Aside from expertise, which is a given, the clear message is: “We are humans who care about our clients’ well-being.”
This firm understood that they didn’t need all the clients. They were looking for the clients who were a good fit, who valued their unique process and who treated them as human beings – in other words, clients they would enjoy working with. (The same goes for me, by the way, which is one of the purposes of this blog.)
When I say I’m authentic, I mean that I don’t play roles. I have different roles in different areas of my life, and those require different types of communication, but I’m the same person at home as I am when I’m working. I don’t pretend to be anything other than who I am. I treat everyone with the respect I’d like to be shown, because we all have an inherent need for respect and to feel valued.
These words – authentic, innovative, integrity (among many others) – are so overused that many readers will shut down immediately (if subconsciously) when they see them unless you illustrate precisely how you embody those traits. Show them what you mean. Give them something they can understand, relate to – and that will make them respect you.