25 Oct Show & Tell: How to Create Convincing Content
If you write for any part of your living, you’re familiar with the adage, ‘show don’t tell.’ Writing that ‘shows’ you something rather than explicitly telling you, allows a reader to experience a topic (not like this sentence). Language that ‘shows’ leads a reader through a subject with their senses, thoughts and feelings, rather than simple summarization or description.
Ernest Hemingway developed and used the ‘Iceberg Theory’ (aka, the theory of omission) which basically advised that the true meaning of a story should not be explicit, but implied.
Chuck Palahniuk recommended banning ‘thought’ verbs (thinks, knows, understands, realizes, believes, wants, remembers, imagines, desires) and replacing them with specific sensory detail.
Check out these examples (from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets):
Show: “Ron’s Shooting Star was often outstripped by passing butterflies.”
Tell: Ron’s Shooting Star was slow.
Descriptive writing relieves burden from the reader and can often carry us through a narrative that delivers a similar, or same, point.
But I’d like to make a point (here’s me, telling you something): convincing content relies heavily on showing the reader something they need to know – but it’s directed by ‘telling’ language.
Telling your reader something is still an important part of writing – it adds constraints to a narrative and can act as a shove in the right direction. If all writing showed instead of telling, we’d have to read much more than if we just learned what we needed to know.
If you’re wondering how to be more mindful, consider more than the words themselves. Syntax and paragraph structure play a major role in the balance between show and tell. Longer and shorter sentences, some of which describe and some of which direct, create a cadence for a reader that helps your content flow.
Take this example from Gary Provost. He demonstrates the balance between short and long sentences, while also beautifully illustrating the tension between show and tell:
“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”
Content has been king for years now. With the rise of inbound marketing, thought leadership and the journalist-blogger, everyone needs to write to stay relevant. Everyone has something to say, something to convince their reader of, a point they’re trying to emphasize. Rarely is poor writing going to move their readers or change their minds. Convincing content is that which shows and tells through the specific language we use and the structure we provide.