Copywriting: 2 Big Reasons “Show Don’t Tell” Is BS

Copywriting Rules Show Don't TellThere’s a rule in creative writing that you should always show rather than tell.

So you wouldn’t write:

“The tall man felt bad when he saw the blonde woman crying on a bench. She reminded him of his mother, who’d abandoned him as a child because she wanted to pursue acting.”

That’s telling. That’s bad in the world of fiction – particularly in short stories.

Instead, you’d want to show, like so:

“It had been years since he’d thought of his mother, ages since he’d let her into his mind. But as he passed a bench on which a weeping woman sat, her long pale hair falling like stage curtains around her face – curtains that might shield her from an unwelcome audience – a familiar knot began to tie in his chest.”

Okay, not exactly Faulkner-esque writing – but you get the point.

In the Tell example, everything was laid on the table, and you couldn’t dig in or engage your imagination.

In the Show example, events unfolded in a less linear manner – and you could better experience the emotions (rather than just being told what the characters were feeling) while imagining more of the scene.

The rule is, “Show, don’t tell.”

And it’s great for the world of writing stories…

…But it’s absolute crap in the world of copywriting. In fact, I’m surprised I hear it as often as I do – and I’ve heard it a LOT lately. From peeps who will remain unnamed.

This rule doesn’t apply because a short story is TOTALLY different from landing page copy:

Short Stories

  • Tell the story the author wants to tell
  • Are meant to be read from top to bottom
  • Take the reader to a new setting with rich characters
  • Are for captive readers
  • Are understood – by their very nature – to be read in full, often more than once, and studied
  • Invite people in

Landing Page Copy

  • Speak to what the visitor wants to know
  • Allow the reader to skip around to take in the message
  • Have no setting and – in most cases – no characters
  • Are for distracted scanners
  • Are a pain in the ass to read in full, and almost no one wants to read a page more than once
  • Keep people at arm’s length

In copywriting, we’re not weaving narratives for a captive audience; we’re selling useful, high-value products to busy, skeptical site visitors.

Further, it takes longer to show than it does to tell. Did you notice how the Show version of the story at the top of this post was longer than the Tell version? Yeah. That’s always the case.

When your visitors are already pressed for time – and, let’s not kid ourselves, most of them are – get to their point faster.

How?

Tell. Then show. Which leads me to the first of 2 big reasons why “show don’t tell” is a BS copywriting rule…:

If You Don’t Tell, You Risk Leaving the Best Messages Implied

Implying is BAD in conversion copywriting. Implied benefits. Hinted at promises. Cleverly summarized value propositions.

Bad. Bad. Bad.

Implying is BAD! Why? Because there is too much room for error / interpretation when you imply. Way too much.

Imagine for a moment that your wife, husband, partner, favorite dog, whatever is fed up and heading for the door. Is this the time to start showing them that you love and appreciate them? Do you go do the dishes? Do you run to their favorite coffee shop and bring back a latte? Do you whip together a scrapbook of your best moments together?

“Showing” can mean showing in a video demonstration… but with the show-don’t-tell rule, it usually means implying with the written word.

Of course not.

One, they’ll be gone by the time you’re done; two, at this point, they’re totally not invested in reading into your actions or trying to decipher your signals. This is not the time to show. This is the time to TELL them you love them, TELL them how much wonderfulness they bring to your life, etc.

Now let’s switch from your beloved partner to your beloved site visitor. They don’t have anything resembling allegiance to you yet – not like your partner does – so they are even LESS invested in trying to decipher your signals than your partner would be.

Will implying – instead of stating – your benefits, promises, differentiators and value props keep them from bouncing? Will showing them what’s awesome about you – and crossing your fingers in the hopes that they figure out what you’re trying to say – keep them around?

Let’s compare the primary messaging on a few landing pages – in the video hosting world – to see which messages a busy visitor could quickly comprehend…

WISTIAwistia home

~

BRIGHTCOVE
Show or tell in copywriting?

~

OOYALA
Show or tell in copywriting

Here are the headlines for those 3 pages, printed for your comparing pleasure:

WISTIA

Smart & Simple Video Hosting

BRIGHTCOVE

Easy, Affordable Website Video Hosting & HD Streaming

OOYALA

Powering Personalized Video Experiences Across All Screens

I don’t know about you, but I’m sort of lost with the Ooyala one. Not sort of. Totally. Why is that? Because rather than telling their visitors what they do and what value they offer – explicitly, in real words that actually mean something – they are implying some sort of benefit. Like, I guess it’s good that you can personalize video, personalize experiences and do both across “all screens” (??)… but they need to tell me why I should care. Make it meaningful for me. My job as your visitor is not to interpret your messages.

Based on the copy on the page, I don’t even know what Ooyala does. Do they host the videos? How do they “power” them? Wha—–?

Confusion ensues.

Visitor leaves.

Here’s the other big reason “show don’t tell” is one of many BS copywriting rules destroying the earth…:

You Should Both Show AND Tell

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.

As a very simple way to help you get this right in your web copy, SHOW in your videos, testimonials and photos… and TELL in the copy you write.

MailChimp does an amazing job of showing in video and telling in text on their current home page, which I encourage you to click to view here:

Show and tell in copywriting

Good copywriting is NOT rocket surgery. It is a healthy collection of principles and tactics – and one of the biggest principles is that you should “put it on the page”. That’s telling. And, trust me, telling will help your visitors – but don’t leave it at just telling. Make sure to show, too. Again, do both.

Now it’s your turn to do some telling – in a comment below, yo.
Don’t just read and run! Let’s talk….

~joanna

PS: In Book 1: Where Stellar Messages Come From, I talk a bit about show vs tell. There are indeed times when “showing” can do a better job than “telling”, as in the case of Mint, where they show their great design rather than explicitly talking about it. For more about this, check out Book 1 >>

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  • Pauline Magnusson

    You write, “…they need to tell me why I should care. Make it meaningful for me. My job as your visitor is not to interpret your messages.” Yes! Love this, Joanna! And while you write that good copywriting isn’t rocket surgery, I’ve gotta say, you set the bar rather high! Love reading your pieces!

    • http://twitter.com/copyhackers Joanna Wiebe

      Yay! Thanks, Pauline. It seems that we make copywriting harder than it needs to be, given that the best messages are usually the raw, unpolished ones that ‘sound’ like people talk. Shooting for raw messages may seem like a low-set bar, but you’re totally right — it takes a lot of work to undo our ideas of what ‘great writing’ is and is not…

  • http://twitter.com/copyhackers Joanna Wiebe

    My daily goal is to do something to make someone pee their pants. So you’ve just made my day. :)

  • Genevieve

    I can’t STAND it when I have to search around for what a company does. A lot of startups seem to suffer from this problem. I confess that I sometimes shout at my screen: “BUT WHAT DO YOU DO??” Also, thank you for mentioning Color Me Badd in your last newsletter.

    • http://twitter.com/copyhackers Joanna Wiebe

      Isn’t it shocking how many sites really assume that you know everything about them and all they need to share with you are their high-level “benefits” (which are usually uber-soft) and a handful of testimonials + client/user logos? The only thing that gives me comfort is Color Me Badd at their best: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WLIeUTHNyBM

  • http://samueljwoods.com/ Samuel Woods

    I strive for clarity above all when I wrote copy. That’s along the same lines as what you’re saying, I suppose.

    What about being very detailed in showing and telling, as in: “Increase your checkout cart conversions by 23.67%…blah blah blah”?

    Can you ever be too specific and detailed?

    • http://twitter.com/copyhackers Joanna Wiebe

      I think if your copy could be replaced by “blah blah blah”, you’ve become too specific and detailed. ;)

      • http://samueljwoods.com/ Samuel Woods

        You’d be surprised at how well “blah blah blah” converts!

      • http://twitter.com/copyhackers Joanna Wiebe

        You’re probably right!

      • http://samueljwoods.com/ Samuel Woods

        It depends, though. Test it.

  • Hugh

    Thanks (I think) Joanna. I’m currently rebuilding 20 pages of a company intranet (yawn) … thought I had the messaging nailed but I suspect a re-think is in order! Thought-provoking article as ever.

    • http://twitter.com/copyhackers Joanna Wiebe

      Company intranets — what fun. Too bad they’re often boring as white bread. Doesn’t it seem like they should be more engaging??? I mean, if your brand is semi-relevant and you’ve got this huge team signing in to the same space, you’d think things would get interesting. Alas, every intranet sucks. Good luck though, Hugh!

  • anne

    copywriting isnt as creative as i thought….i’d better stick to short stories!

    • http://twitter.com/copyhackers Joanna Wiebe

      Or do both. :) I find that copywriting disciplines me to write regularly, on demand and for an audience. All of that is totally applicable to your creative writing. It’s just that very little of your creative writing lessons can be applied to copywriting — though surely some things can, and that’s a post unto itself!

  • Craig Martin

    “Good copywriting is NOT rocket surgery.” Haha – I love that part!

    Thanks for showing (and telling) us what landing page copy should include. Straightforward copy doesn’t need to be completely cut-and-dry.. just a few accents of creative license mixed in.

    • http://twitter.com/copyhackers Joanna Wiebe

      Yeah — a mix of show and tell, done intentionally, can go a loooong way. All show is bad. All tell is bad. Gotta mix ‘em up!

  • R

    Awesome post Joanna…love it! especially for wanna-be’s like me.

    • http://twitter.com/copyhackers Joanna Wiebe

      Cool, R! :) Speaking of wannabes, an anagram for my name is Joie Wannabe… Don’t you love anagrams??!!

  • http://twitter.com/diedsj Diederik Sjardijn

    Kind of an open door but great post neveretheless here Joanna. Point driven home succesfully :-)

    • http://twitter.com/copyhackers Joanna Wiebe

      Hey, Diederik — thanks! :)