The Importance of Showing Versus Telling

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I majored in English in college with a focus on Creative Writing. At a place like Princeton, this made me the butt of some jokes, because most of my classmates were in the thick of more “practical” majors like Economics or Biology so they could fulfill their dreams of working on Wall Street or becoming some type of doctor. It’s neither here nor there whether I was right or they were. I know one thing stood out from me from those Creative Writing classes: “show, don’t tell.”

What does this mean? Effective storytelling is done passively. If you tell someone exactly who the character is in the story and how they behave, then there is not much for the reader to anticipate, because they already know everything. Sometimes it’s best to find out that a character is temperamental because they yell at someone unexpectedly during the story. The reader feels the anger of that character in that moment, and they trust it much more than an unknown narrator simply telling them that the character has a temper.

In my book, I refer to this phenomenon as “Inception.” Inception is, of course, from its namesake movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, where bands of thieves work to implant ideas in peoples’ minds by infiltrating their dreams. Of course, in the movie, the characters famously do this in nuanced ways. They do not infiltrate someone’s brain and carry around signs and block traffic and smash windows and yell the idea they want to implant like some people tend to do today in our society with impunity (and little success); instead, they instill the idea more passively. In the movie, the band of thieves are tasked with a mission to get someone to dissolve his company. The way they accomplish this is by planting an image of the individual’s dying father in his dream telling him that he always wanted him to be his own man. The takeaway? Dissolve the company and do your own thing, kid. The character, Robert, wakes up with resolve that he should pursue his own enterprise. Mission accomplished.

The reason this idea works is because people like to come to their own conclusions. Whether it is good or bad, our tribal, human instincts make us defensive of our own ideas. Succinctly put, we do not like to be told what is right or wrong. This is why it is usually an unsuccessful sales tactic to make a customer feel stupid for decisions they have made. Even if you are able to show them why your solution is good for them, all you have really succeeded in is making them feel dumb, which is something they would never want to admit publicly. So even if they privately agree with you, they are unlikely to go with you. But interestingly, many times people cannot even bring themselves to reach such a conclusion. And that is because people want to feel the outcome, and they want to experience it themselves rather than be told what to feel.

There are different ways of “showing,” ranging from showing something about yourself to showing someone an idea or phenomenon. When it comes to your own behavior, I’ve found that the best way – which might be easier said than done – is to simply exude the behavior that you want to show to others. For example, there is a difference between telling someone in a job interview that you are a hard worker and sharing a story that shows your hard work. I often preach about the importance of authenticity and honesty and I personally hate it when I ask someone about their greatest flaw in a job interview and they turn around and tell me something that they spin into a positive. So how do I overcome that? Well, whenever I have a job interview, I actually talk about my shortcomings, how I identified them, and what I have been doing to fix them. Hopefully this shows people I am honest, self-aware, and authentic without me needing to tell them to believe any of those things.

In my book, I tell the story of Daryl Davis, a black man who has convinced hundreds of KKK members to give up their white robes, to apologize, and to live their lives as non-racists. You might be surprised to find out how he accomplished this. He did this by befriending them, playing piano with them, having drinks with them, and letting them come to their own understanding that he was a good guy. And once they connected those dots, they came to understand that their entire belief system was flawed. What he did not do was ruin everyone’s day by blocking traffic and telling them that they were bad people. And while in this extreme scenario I certainly do empathize with those who choose the latter route – as I believe they are well-intended – this is just one example of many in which showing supersedes telling, even if it is much more challenging and time-consuming to accomplish.

Showing an idea or a phenomenon unrelated to yourself is a lot trickier. One obvious answer is to be data-driven. I’ve found it disconcerting lately that it is someone’s “lived experience” which often dictates how others ought to feel. I have my own lived experience, but that lived experience is full of anecdotal data from the limited perspective of myself. Even in my job, I have been asked questions from time to time where certainly in the experience I have I would have an inkling as to what the answer should be, but that does not prohibit me from going out to my network and polling a larger audience so that I can speak with more authority. Sometimes my intuition and my experience is wrong or contrary to what most others would recommend. My coworkers deserve to understand that before we make a decision. 

But there are other ways to show your ideas that are more complex. One of those is to lead with genuine curiosity about someone else’s beliefs, and to have an assumption that others are acting in good faith. Chapter 3 of my book talks about the idea of Empathy and the idea that most people are well-intended and come up with their ideas based on their own experiences and the information they are exposed to, which is different for everyone. We need to be understanding of that. You cannot rightfully assume how someone came to their conclusions until you ask them. And it is not until you know the answer to that question that you can actually assess whether their information is any better than your own. If I had a nickel for every time I have changed my mind about a serious political subject over the last decade, I could probably retire. I’m happy that I have remained open-minded, because when I was younger, I used to write people off entirely if their beliefs differed from my own.

You can plant ideas in peoples’ minds by asking them good-faith questions that force them to open up and reconcile with their own beliefs. This is why cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is so successful. CBT basically works off of an idea where you force yourself to consider scenarios that are contrary to the one you have drawn upon as a conclusion and talk through how likely or unlikely those alternative scenarios could be based on the tangible evidence at hand. How many times have you had an interaction with someone where you thought they meant one thing – something bad or rude or mean – but in reality they meant something completely different? It is only when you force yourself to pause and think through the alternatives that you can even get yourself out of the mindset of accepting the first conclusion that comes to mind, and so asking people to do this for themselves is one of many ways to show instead of telling. 

Overall, it feels like the last few years have really brought about a lack of shared understanding due to the way our media cycle works and the unfortunate side effects of social media. Ironically, these tools that are designed to bring us closer together are pushing us further apart. That’s why it’s more important than ever to have patience in how we share our ideas, and to be open to the reality that we very well may be wrong ourselves.

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