We have all heard someone tell a bad story. You’re trapped. This person is telling you the most boring wallpaper-paste details anyone could never care about. It has no resonance or connection to your emotions and experience, except in the way a window connects with a pebble that taps on the glass. Something tried to be conveyed…but didn’t stick. There is no real conclusion or point, but the speaker chuckles anyway and looks at you expectantly. They know what they are feeling about the story, and expect you to feel it too. This is the pain of being told a story, not shown it.
It’s also easy to spot storytellers who are good at it. Take Stephen King for instance, my personal favorite living writer. His novels are terrifying, yet also manage to inspire the good-hearted, and show us the payoffs of bold action. Jump scares, tear jerkers, angry yelling–this guy can evoke it all. He is a story-show-er, not a story-tell-er. He doesn’t tell us “The Losers felt afraid of Pennywise,” and if he did, the book IT wouldn’t be scary. “A gross dirty clown appeared out of nowhere and started walking toward them.” Okay, big deal?
Instead, we are shown conversations about fear. Every sensory detail we need to feel engaged is described, from smells and sounds of Derry to the inner monologues and emotional reactions of each narrator. He shows us thought processes, changing feelings, and petty interiors. The reader feels involved as the characters deduce what to do next to escape a monster, or thwart a monster, or save the world.
But just because I can identify an example of good story-showing like Mr. King, doesn’t mean it’s so easy to write. It took me a lot of practice to feel in control of “show, don’t tell” in writing, and even today some pieces come out more successfully than others. When I am trying to figure out how to make a piece of writing show better and tell less, here are some of the questions I ask.
Can I Connect More with the Senses of the Audience?
When you’re writing marketing copy, the sensory experience of your audience is maybe not front-of-mind. And that’s okay–let’s not take ourselves too seriously, or overstep the bounds of professionalism and brand positioning. But even when you’re trying to sell someone a software product, or offer a line of services, effective B2B marketing succeeds when the audience knows their life will be easier and better. And you can’t just tell them it will be. You have to show them how.
Find the places you are promising your target audience an outcome. Is it described in a way that sounds inviting and desirable, or is it a dry boring bullet point? You can’t expect a reader to do the work of translating what you are telling into their own perspective, or deciding what it means for them. Yes, you don’t know their circumstances, so the instinct to tell is strong. But by describing your promises in a more detailed way, you not only draw in the reader, but also set their expectations for your service.
For instance, you might tell the reader about “increased workflow transparency between disparate remote workers” as a software selling point. This means little, maybe even nothing. But describing to them “Use in-product chat, real time push notifications, and document sharing to work together better even when you’re apart” lets them reside within your description. They get a visual of existing as your customer. It also explains the feature better.
Which Verbs and Adverbs are Weak?
Okay, let’s stick with this example. I would say that “work together better even when you’re apart” is the idea you want to get across, but it’s also wordy. How do we fix it? Well, there are verbs out there that could do better to inspire good emotions than “work.” And paired with the adverb of manner “together” that tells us how we are working, we’ve strayed into totally expected and boring language. Turn to a thesaurus or just think for a while. Collaborate means “work together,” so why use two words when we could use one?
The acceptable answer might be because you like the tone better. Collaborate is a vocab word you had to spell on a test at some point, and might come off as fussy. If your brand doesn’t position itself that way, you might like the more laid-back and less buzzwordy “work together.” But these should always be choices we make as writers, not unexamined features of our writing.
Dialing back in to our example, there’s also the dependent clause lazing around, taking up too much space at the end–“even when you’re apart.” This entire chunk of words is all an adverb, still referring back to and describing a condition about when and how we “work.” Could it be fewer words, or even removed completely? Well sure–there are words like “remote” and “distance” that can help trim the fat.
Maybe you try on a modern phenomenon like “remote collaboration.” However, now you’re straying back into perhaps telling, and not showing. Or can you evoke the excitement of what real remote collaboration can feel like when done well?
Choosing the strongest verbs possible and getting rid of lazy adverbs is a practical step to evocative writing, but our first discussion about sensory richness and empathy should be held at a higher priority. If it takes you more words to show, so be it.
Are Quotes or Data an Option?
Your reaction to the idea of quotes and dialogue within a piece of marketing content may be along the lines of sensory evocation–it’s a fun idea, but also a strange new territory.
Quotes in B2B marketing content take some of the burden off the writer to show versus tell. What if instead of trying to nail down the perfect way to show and evoke your remote collaboration feature, you got a customer testimonial? This has an amazing benefit of allowing the claim about “working better” to be stated by someone else, rather than yourself. This is a more humble approach to marketing that many brands try to achieve.
You can also show commitment to brand values or show your industry thought leadership through quotes. You could start your piece with action of a critical conversation between two company stakeholders, showing how values were better understood or achieved. Or, instead of summarizing your company’s opinion about why your software is better, share a quote from the founder.
Data is another tool that can help you show a story in marketing content. We do plenty of research in marketing about both our industries and our target audiences. Sometimes, the data points we find are an essential link in our reasoning or motivation. How and why we tell a story is about the facts and environment around us, too. We don’t have to make readers aware of every detail, but sometimes sharing a statistic shows far more than even our best most luscious words. For instance, if you wanted to drive home the need for better remote collaboration to support the future of the gig economy, you could get hyperbolic and make a bunch of claims no one in your audience has any reason to believe. Or you can find a data point and build from there to support your argument.
Everyone loves a story they can be included in, that touches their emotions and resonates with their perspective. As we all learn and struggle through, this kind of connection is about open sharing and humility, not pushing our own unique vision like it’s the only one. Use the specifics about what it’s like to work with you and why you stand out to your advantage. Describe them in your content and put the reader in the shoes of your customer, because you want them to be one!
If you’re still seeking more guidance about how to show and not tell in B2B marketing content, our free eBook Campfire Content focuses on creating shared context with audiences. Or, we’re always around to talk too.
Brand storytelling is about the total experience of a reader—words and images. Check out this list of our favorite branding partners to make the marriage happen.