Discover The Storytelling Power Of “Show, Don’t Tell”

Telling people facts can be helpful. But this is not a great way to impart a lesson. This is why you must master the art of “show, don’t tell.”

July 17th, 2017

Do you want to become a great storyteller? A storyteller who can create a vivid picture in the mind of others with words and compel people to action? There are many tactics you can learn to help you become a better storyteller. But there is one short, yet profound phrase you must embrace.

Do you want to become a great storyteller? A storyteller who can create a vivid picture in the mind of others with words and compel people to action? There are many tactics you can learn to help you become a better storyteller. But there is one short, yet profound phrase you must embrace.

A standard technique popularized in the early 20th century is as relevant today as it was then. It’s called “show, don’t tell.” Let me “show” you what I mean.

Imagine this scenario: Think about one of the best books you have ever read. A book that was so good you wish you could read it all over again and experience it for the first time.

Got it?

Great.

Now, think of sharing this book with a friend who has not read it before. Imagine them discovering the characters you came to love for the first time. The surprise they would experience with the twist in the plot at the end. Or, how they would empathize with the internal struggle the hero wrestles with throughout the story.

After reading the book, you and your friend now have the opportunity to sit down together at your favorite restaurant to share the parts of the story you enjoyed most.

Alright, now let us switch gears for a moment.

Instead of giving your friend the book to read and enjoy, imagine a scenario where you just tell them the plot. In a matter of minutes, you quickly spill the beans: Frodo. Orcs. Ring gets destroyed. Eagles fly them home. This makes for a riveting story, right? Well, not exactly.

This little exercise reveals the distinction between showing and telling. You see, the difference in this technique is that it allows a person to experience something for him or herself versus telling them what they will see, hear, and experience. This is a big difference.

I experienced this last year when I saw the movie Arrival.

The storytelling power of “show, don’t tell”

My wife and I went to the movie theater to watch Arrival, and it blew my mind.

The next day, I came into the office and told the Pro Church Tools team that we were taking a field trip to see the movie together. I didn’t care if we had to go to a matinee on some random Tuesday afternoon. I wanted to do whatever it took because I wanted the team to see and experience the movie for themselves.

Instead of telling them the plot ahead of time, I told them as little as possible to pique their interest. I was like the person at the grocery store passing samples to give them a taste of what they were going to enjoy.

Do you know what happened?

All of us watched the movie together, and every single one of us had a slightly different experience. One member of the team loved the soundtrack. Another member of the team enjoyed the characters. A different member of the team was captivated by the underlying message of the film. And down the line, all of us had a unique experience with this amazing story.

For my team, I could have robbed them of their experience by reducing the power of the story by telling them about it. When you do this with a story, you rob storytelling of its power

A great story leads you to a place where you can have an epiphany—This is the experience the team and me had when we watched Arrival.

When we watched the movie together, all of us had a different experience. Why? Even though we watched the same film, all of us were watching it through the lens of our worldview, circumstances, and life experiences.

If you are still unsure of this whole “show, don’t tell” mantra, then there is no better example than Jesus himself.

Jesus, the master storyteller

When Jesus came to earth, he shared the most important truths the world has ever heard. How did he do it? He captured the attention of people by showing them what they needed to hear through stories known as parables.

Instead of telling us about redemption, Jesus shows us the story of the Prodigal Son. Instead of telling us about love, he shows us the story of the Good Samaritan. And instead of telling us about the kingdom of God, he shows us the story of the Mustard Seed.

Conclusion

When you communicate by telling, you force others to have your experience; not their own.

There is nothing wrong with sharing your opinion. But telling, and not showing, undermines the unique and personal experience someone can have. However, when you communicate by showing, by using a story, you invite others to the table, to stumble upon epiphanies of their own, and to experience truth in a deeper and lasting way. This is the aim of every great storyteller.

How can you apply “show, don’t tell” to your ministry? Do you see this making a difference in how you communicate with others? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

  • Abi León

    Are you talking about the importance of video? Or is there an element in video that we’re missing that we can apply?

    • Abi, this isn’t a video specific idea. In fact, it’s probably most popular amongst writers. Anywhere anytime you’re using story focusing on “show, don’t tell” will come in handy.