Understanding the “Show, Don’t Tell” Marketing Strategy

Show Dont Tell Inception

The characters in Inception used emotional imagery to convince their prospect to take action.

“Show, don’t tell” is considered one of the most valuable secrets of writing (for both creative fiction and marketing) because it relies on the imagination of the audience.

Much like in the movie Inception, your goal is to plant an idea in the mind of your prospect without them being fully aware of it. A person is more likely to perform an action when it’s inspired by their own idea, not someone else telling them to. The characters in Inception couldn’t just tell Cillian Murphy’s character, “Close your father’s company!” They had to show him why closing the company was a good idea. Murphy came to that conclusion himself, and as a result, the idea had more merit to him.

Understanding How to “Show, Not Tell”

It’s sometimes easiest to understand how to implement the “show, don’t tell” strategy when looking at it from a creative writing perspective. For example, let’s say that I’ve got a character named Susie. She’s the protagonist of my novel, so I want to make her heroic.

But suppose that the only way I did this was by outright telling you, “Susie was heroic.” Would you believe me? Would you have a sense of why Susie is heroic? You’ve got no actual evidence that Susie is heroic; all you have to go on is the word of a faceless narrator. Not a very satisfying feeling, is it?

If I want Susie to be a heroic character, I need to show that she’s heroic by having her do heroic things. I could describe her defeating a sinister villain or rescuing a helpless child. I could even boil it down to a line of dialogue spoken by another character: “Remember the time that you saved that child’s life?”

The same basic “show, don’t tell” concept can be applied to marketing and promotional writing.

“Show, Don’t Tell” Marketing Strategy

Don't just tell your audience that the roller coaster is exciting; show it.Let’s replace Susie with a product that I want to sell: an exciting (imaginary) roller coaster called the Gale Force. If I just tell my audience that “the Gale Force is exciting,” they’ve got no reason to believe me. They don’t even know me, and this blunt statement makes it obvious that they’re being advertised to.

The secret is to lead your audience into making the conclusion that you desire. If I describe the Gale Force to you as having “six harrowing loop-the-loops” and traveling at “whirlwind speeds of over 60 miles per hour,” you’ll probably get the feeling that the roller coaster is exciting. I didn’t have to blatantly state it for you; you’re smart enough to figure it out on your own. And because you came to that conclusion yourself, you’re more likely to believe it.

Notice that I’m not simply listing features of the product; I’m describing the ways that the product ultimately fulfills a benefit (giving the customer excitement and adventure).

One of the best ways to show a concept is through the use of images. Rather just telling my audience how exciting the Gale Force is, I can show them pictures of its steep drops and screaming, laughing passengers. Pairing vivid imagery with descriptive writing gives your audience emotional appeal and evidence of the benefit they’ll receive.

You can also “show” through the use of testimonials. A prospect will be more likely to trust a fellow consumer, but just having them say “That roller coaster was exciting!” still doesn’t sound very convincing. If, however, the testimonial uses emotional imagery like “My heart’s still pounding!” then the prospect will be able to more fully imagine the feeling of excitement.

The “show, don’t tell” strategy can be applied to any sort of advertising, whether it’s online or print collateral. If you’re still at a loss for how to get started, try answering these three questions.

  1. What do you want your prospect to do?
  2. How do they need to feel about your product/service in order to do it?
  3. What specific features about your product/service might make them feel this way?

Once you identify these features, you can show (not tell) your audience how those features lead to a benefit that they desire.

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Understanding the Show, Dont Tell Marketing Strategy

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