Don't Tell Me, Show Me!

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Don’t Tell Me, Show Me

Acting Vs Copywriting

Back in the days when I was training to be an actor, I feared one of my teachers.  

His name was Ron Williams and he had a reputation for putting us young actors through the mill during mock auditions, script reads and rehearsals.

Looking back I know it was because he pushed for his actors do better, to embody the character more deeply and to be great in the roles we played.

He was an aging teacher with leathery skin and a Welsh accent so thick you could cut it with a knife.

He also had a twinkle in his eyes and over the three years I trained at drama school, I grew fond of him, yet I still feared every class I had with him because he pushed me out of my comfort zone.

He was known for asking tough questions about character motivations and emotion portrayal which left most of us stumbling over our words to explain what the character was experiencing in that moment, to which he replied…

“Don’t tell me, show me”

This phrase became synonymous with Ron and it’s how I’ll always remember him - rest his soul!

But this lesson not only helped me become a better actor, it’s also helped me become a better copywriter.

Show Don’t Tell

One of the fundamental principles for writing copy is ‘Show, Don’t Tell’.

The difference between these two things (showing vs telling) can be demonstrated with a simple act of sales storytelling.

Imagine you are a dog trainer and you want to be able to communicate to potential customers the benefits of what you do.

Telling would be talking about how long you’ve studied as a dog trainer, how many dogs you’ve trained and giving the benefits of having a well behaved dog in your house vs a not-so-well behaved dog.

It’s good - you’re covering the bases of benefits by telling you can do for your customers but what if you SHOW them?

By painting a picture with your words, you can show what’s possible.

Describe how once your customers’ dog has been trained by you she will sit perfectly still next to a grill-seared steak, without even sneaking a peak at it.

Or that after being through your unique training system a dog will not only bring you your paper on request but she will no longer go bonkers at the sound of the doorbell when visitors descend but instead sit quietly as your greet your guests.

‘Telling’ goes into logic, which is all very well and good (and appeals to our cerebral cortex) but people buy based on how something makes them feel.

Why do millions of people worldwide spend their hard earned money going to movie theatres?  

Because they loved to be transported from their lives and be put directly into the action of what they are seeing on the big screen. They want to feel and experience the story, not just see and understand it.

This is part of the ‘showing process. It taps into people’s emotional core and paints a picture of what life could look like for them when they use your product or service.

The Proof Is In The Showing

‘Showing’ also adds an element of proof to your copy. It’s a way to position you as an expert and give real time examples of what you’ve helped people achieve.

The act of showing versus telling lets people have a sample experience of what you can do for them.

Whereas ‘telling’ is something that anyone can do - you can say you’re a world class actor, but that does nothing for credibility or indeed the chances of you winning an Oscar.

Yet, showing your acting skills allows connection, trust and…. yes, proof.

(maybe acting isn’t a great examples since ‘art’ is subjective - but I think you get what I mean by this?)

The power of emotion

As discussed in the book ‘The Advertising Solution’, Robert Collier (the late and great copywriter who earned millions from advertising) said you have to ask yourself what emotion you want to arouse in your reader.

It’s the emotion at play, in any sales copy, that is the motivating factor to take action.

“Appeal to the reason, by all means. Give people a logical excuse for buying that they can tell to their friends and use to salve their own consciences. But if you want to sell goods, if you want action of any kind, base your real urge upon some primary emotion!” - Robert Collier

Here are some primary emotions you can use in your copy to be more persuasive and appeal to people’s emotions motivations to buy:











Now you may think these appear to be mostly ‘negative’ emotions, but these are just the labels that we give the emotions.  Think about what these emotions feel like in your body as you experience them.

You either want to move away from feeling that way or you want more of it.  Those emotions you want to move away from are the ones you are most likely to move you to action.

That doesn’t mean we want to instil negative emotions in our prospective customers and clients, but we need them emotionally engaged to understand what’s at stake.

When we are building an ideal customer avatar, we consider their dreams, desires and goals, but we also pinpoint their problems and pain points so we can paint a picture of their reality now and how different it could be once they have used your product or service.

I know this is starting to get into the weeds on the ethics of selling, and they’ll be more on that topic in the future, but just consider how you can use emotion, through ‘showing’ your customers what you or your product can do for them.

A Place for Telling

The typical quote (as I stated in my title) is ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ - but as Robert Collier said earlier “Appeal to the reason, by all means”... because there is a place for telling but if you want your copy to be as powerful as possible, you should always back it up with ‘showing’!

Here’s what Joanna Wiebe of CopyHackers says on the matter:

“The idea is to SHOW then TELL. First show them what’s different or awesome about you. Imply all you’d like. BUT follow that up by explaining – in clear, meaningful words – what you’ve shown them, what you’ve implied.

Alternatively, you can TELL then SHOW. If your visitor needs to know something – like that you offer smart and simple video hosting – TELL them. Then follow that up by showing them evidence of that point, whether you do so in an explainer video, in a screenshot or in a powerful testimonial.

It’s not one or the other. It’s not “always tell, never show” or “show, don’t tell”. It’s BOTH.”

A nod to Ron

I’d like to thank Ron Williams for this ever important lesson, but I’d like to adapt his personal motto from

“Don’t Tell Me, Show Me” to …

“Tell Me and Show Me!”

But somehow it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it (especially when said with a Welsh accent!).

Thank you to the copywriters from the Copy Chief community who gave their thoughts and input into this article: Angie Colee, Finn Lobsien, Robert Phillips, Addison Rice, Kimberley Houston, Cindy Childress, Josh Earl, Dan Ludgater.


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