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Show, Don’t Tell: How Content Marketers Can Learn From Fiction Writers

Date published: May 08, 2015
Last updated: May 8, 2015

Anyone who has ever taken any type of fiction or creative writing class has heard the rule “Show, don’t tell.” Every writing teacher, guide to the craft, and writing blog has repeated the rule, and every professional writer has been admonished at some point to revise their writing to do more showing, less telling.

Writing nonfiction (including online content) has a little more leeway when it comes to showing and telling, but it still needs to be engaging. If writers want to tell a compelling story and get the attention of their audience, they must draw from the well of fiction techniques.

That’s why more companies are turning to content creators with creative writing degrees and experience in the realm of fiction writing. Experienced storytellers who understand how to grab a reader’s attention — and hold it — can usually market your company more effectively than an executive who thinks that simply sharing the features and benefits of a product are enough to attract consumers.

Even if they don’t have a master’s in writing, or haven’t written fiction since the third grade, content marketers can still turn “marketing speak” into compelling content if you follow the rule of “Show, don’t tell” when creating your content. It takes practice, but if you follow a few basic principles, you’ll see engagement — and conversions — increase.

Putting on a Show

The biggest problem with a “telling” style of writing is that it’s empty. It doesn’t really say anything or set you apart. For example, if you describe your business as “committed to success,” what are you really saying?

Your customers most likely already assume that you’re not interested in failure. If you didn’t care whether your efforts were successful or not, you wouldn’t be in business for long.

Instead, your content needs to be specific and descriptive. Not only is it more interesting to read, but your readers are also more likely to take action when the content gives them a concrete reason to do so. Here are a few ways you can start incorporating the tenants of fictional writing into your content almost immediately:

Avoid Empty Words

Words like aggressive, passionate, dedicated, creative, innovative, excellent, great, pretty and nice are “empty” adjectives. Don’t tell me that something is innovative — show me what makes it so. Why is it different from everything else?

Use Quantifiable Examples

Telling your readers that you are the best in the business isn’t enough. Give them examples to prove it. Even if you aren’t trying to sell your product or service and are just explaining a concept, providing examples to illustrate your point brings the writing to life. How do you apply this knowledge? Do you have a case study that you can draw from to elucidate your point?

Add Details to Expand the Telling

One common mistake writers make is interpreting showing as adding details. While in a sense that is true, when the details are nothing more than more telling, they only serve to bog down the content.

Saying something like, “Customers who buy this product are pleased with it,” tells your readers something positive about your product, but doesn’t really tell them what they can expect if they make a purchase.

Expanding the statement to something like, “Customers are happy with this product and say that they will not use another. The features help them perform (whatever task it is) better.” While the second sentence has more detail, it still doesn’t really capture the reader’s attention and tell them why they should buy your product.

Instead, the details should avoid restating the obvious and provide more insight and evidence that what you are saying is true: “Customers who use this product report (insert positive results).” When you share that customers save time or money, do something better or have another positive result, your readers will assume that they are happy — and understand why, and want those results for themselves.

Use Action Words

Telling relies on adjectives and adverbs, which have a tendency to be meaningless or vague — after all, doesn’t everyone have their own definition of “pretty” or “relaxing”? Use verbs to tell your story instead. Again, this is where storytelling and providing examples comes in.

Which is the more interesting sentence? “John had a bad day,” or “John got a flat tire on the way to a big meeting and a passing car splashed him with mud while he changed it”?

Learning how to show and not tell in your writing takes time and practice. Try to find a balance between stating the facts and painting a vivid picture. Not only will your content improve, but your results will as well.

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