“Show, Don’t Tell.”
How many times have you heard that phrase? My high school English teacher used it to explain how descriptive words in our favorite classics, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, help readers understand the action, identify with the characters and visualize the scene in the stories on each page.
In the nonprofit world, “show, don’t tell” is the difference between telling your audiences that your issue matters and demonstrating why it is important. This distinction is crucial: how you describe what you’re doing can significantly alter the frame in which your issue is perceived and dramatically increase engagement with your cause.
“Show, don’t tell” is great advice that still rings true – no matter how long ago you graduated from high school. Here are three ways to incorporate this adage into your communications:
1. Stylistic Description
Replacing clinical, formal terms with descriptive language can transform the way audiences view your issue. For example, if I say “Our client was living in substandard housing,” I’ve given you some information – it’s factual, but not very engaging.
But if I say,
“The first time I met Jim at his home, it took a while for my eyes to adjust to the light, because the windows were covered with tattered, cloudy, yellowed plastic sheeting. I had to pick my way through an obstacle course of pans and plastic buckets that littered the stained carpet. It was clear they only caught most of the rainwater that trickled through the leaky roof.”
Now you’re there with me, and emotionally engaged in the life of a real person. I’ve shown you his “substandard housing” in a way that is much more likely to stick with you.
Here’s another example:
What you want to tell:
“Bridge Meadows helps with the success and stability of youth in foster care, adoptive families and elders.”
How to show it:
“A youth in foster care finds a permanent home and finally begins to trust the adults in her life. She goes to school every day and her grades improve.
Adoptive parents gain knowledge and skills to parent youth with confidence who have experienced trauma, along with support and camaraderie to manage stress, and achieve a level of security to provide stability for their children.
Elders gain new friends and family, and feel more alive than they have in years. And it’s all possible because real, meaningful relationships are built and nurtured with intention and purpose.” – Bridge Meadows
By painting a verbal picture of the scene, descriptive writing allows your audience to “see” the impact of the work you do for themselves and reach a conclusion independently. Rather than telling the reader that Bridge Meadows is helping kids in foster care, adoptive families and elders, the second box is showing their successes. Using descriptive language creates a much stronger belief and sense of conviction within individuals. By drawing meaning from information around us, beliefs become stronger, more intrinsic and more engrained in us.
The natural next step is to infuse your descriptive language into a narrative to further engage and inspire your audiences. Since the beginning of mankind, humans have connected, informed and inspired one another through the act of storytelling. Telling stories connects your audience to your work and helps your message resonate with audiences in a more profound and emotional way.
We Spitfires love telling stories. A good story can range from how your organization got started, to the people who are impacted by your work. Stories connect audiences to your organization by making your organization’s issue more real for them – and by humanizing your work in a way that nothing else can. For more information on types of stories and how to use them, check out Spitfire’s blog post: How Stories Can Help You Break through Barriers When Fact-Based Arguments Fall Short.
A picture is worth 1,000 words. It may be a cliché – but it’s true. A strong photograph documenting the impact of your work or the importance of your issue can connect with individuals on a personal level. Photographs of the people and places that benefit from your work can do wonders for making problems real for your audiences, putting a face on what’s at stake and reinforcing the tangible impact your work is generating.
Additionally, graphics (charts, infographics and other illustrations) can be extremely helpful in connecting your audience to your issue. Graphics enable you to take abstract or complex ideas, pull out the central information and frame your work in a relatable way.
Illustrations and infographics can literally show an idea. And I’m not just saying that because I am a graphic designer; I am a graphic designer because I am saying that. A strong visual can set the tone and context for your message. Instead of saying, “this policy was extremely effective,” an infographic can frame an issue and depict it visually for the audience. For example, The “Fearless Girl” statute facing off with the bull on Wall Street paired with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s famous words “Nevertheless, she persisted,” was used to evoke a strong emotional response in favor of closing the gender wage gap.
Social math is also an effective way to create context and put abstract ideas into a package that makes sense to us. “Social math” is the practice of translating statistics and other data in a way that becomes meaningful to the audience. In other words, it’s taking data or statistics that are hard to conceptualize and putting them into a context that is easy to understand.
For example, we wanted to highlight that an additional four million Americans have been insured through the Affordable Care Act in the last two years. Four million is a lot of people. In this infographic, we used social math to help conceptualize the four million Americans insured. With a little Google searching, we were able to determine that four million people is enough to fill every hospital bed in America – four and a half times!
Stylistic description, storytelling and strong visuals are three effective ways to connect your audience with your issue in a more authentic and meaningful way. Creating these connections is crucial to making your issue actionable. If you’re aiming to form a connection between your issue and your audience, it’s simple – don’t tell them, show them.