Show, Don’t Tell

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When words don’t work

When you can’t describe something easily, it’s often better to “show” it. In fact, when you make ideas visual, you make them easier to understand. As a result, they become more interesting, and more persuasive.
Show, don’t tell

What does “show” mean? The most obvious way is to literally show something. Sometimes you should stop talking and just show something.

Scenario 9: Smash

Andy: Let’s play a game.
Rusty: Okay. What do you want to play?
Andy: How about Super Smash Brothers?
Rusty: What’s kind of a game is it?
Andy: Well, it’s like a fighting game. The goal is to knock the other players off the screen.
Rusty: Knock them off the screen?
Andy: Yeah. You attack other players. As you damage them, they fly farther when you hit them with strong attacks. So, you damage them, hit them with a strong attack, and knock them off the edge of the screen to win.

This is a good, simple description of the game. However, can you imagine the game? Probably not. Imagine if the description was more complex and “complete”? In this case, talking about the game isn’t very interesting. A video of the game is much more interesting.

What if you want to give instructions to someone?

Scenario 10: Classroom instructions

Micah: Okay everybody, let’s play crisscross.
Students: How do we play crisscross?
Micah: Like this. Step 1: Everybody stands up. Step 2: I ask a question. Step 3: If you think you know the answer to the question, raise your hand. Step 4: I will call on you, and then you need to answer the question with a full sentence. Step 5: If you answer correctly, pick left, right, front, or back. Whichever you choose, that line of people (starting from you) will sit down. We will continue until everybody is sitting down.

When you read that the first time, could you imagine what the game looked like? After about step one or two, many people’s minds will go blank. I see this all the time in junior high school classes. It’s best to show the activity, not describe it.

“Show” with words

If you have ever experienced anything like the above scenarios, you probably realized that words weren’t helping you. But, there are many more scenarios where it’s less obvious that you should “show”.

You’ve already seen one example.

Scenario 7, revisited: Visual language

Mikasa: So, Eren, do you have any hobbies?
Eren: Yeah, I like macro photography.
Mikasa: Macro photography? What’s that?
Eren: Taking pictures of things like bugs.

Remember, you can choose to simply reply, “Taking pictures of small things”. But, “small” isn’t visual. I can’t focus my imagination on the concept “small”. Besides, “small” is open to interpretation. How small is “small”?

In this case, showing means to use visual language—to say something that makes the listener imagine something that they can be seen. By saying “things like bugs”, you give the listener an image to focus on. It also gives some specific, information that reveals something interesting about you.

Sometimes, it’s absolutely essential to use visual language. Let me show you a scenario from my own life where I should have used more visual language.

Scenario 11: Police Report

One day, I was riding my bike home from work. Most days, I notice bits of garbage—sticks, bags, shoes, hats, gloves, bottles, things like that—on the road and ride around them. On that day, however, I saw something unusual as I rode over a bridge: a wallet. I stopped there on the bridge and picked it up. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew it wasn’t garbage. So I put it in my bag and took it home.

Later that day, my girlfriend came to my apartment. I showed her the wallet. She said that we needed to go to a police station to report it.

When we showed the police the wallet, they asked me where I found it. Unfortunately, although I often read the name of the river that the bridge crossed, I couldn’t remember it at the time. So I tried to get the name from my girlfriend.

Micah: What’s the biggest river on the biggest road close to here?

I thought that was good enough. It wasn’t. My girlfriend was confused, then guessed. The name didn’t sound quite right. The police officer showed me a map. It didn’t look right.

After a bit of questioning and guessing, the officer showed a different map. It showed a much bigger road with a bridge going over a much larger river. Bingo! I pointed at the bridge, gave them the wallet, and left.

The problem with my first description? Cultural differences. Americans and Japanese have very different ideas of “big” and “close”. The first time the officer showed me a map, it showed a much smaller road and river that were much closer than I was trying to describe.

What should I have done? Ideally, pull up Google Maps and show the road on the map (I may have done that, but I don’t remember). But, if I didn’t have access to Google Maps, I should have used more visual language. I could have talked about major landmarks along the road (like certain popular businesses). I could have talked about some shared experience with my girlfriend on that road (like a trip we took together on that road). Nearly any other description would have been better than the one I chose.

But, later that evening, I got a call from an old lady thanking me for returning her wallet with everything in it. Even my poor communication skills worked.

Grandma talks like an interesting person

Many people use visual language everyday to spice up their communication. Even grandmas get in on the action.

Scenario 12: Hey, baby

Barbara: Hi, Mom. Could you hold Dixie for a second while I get the groceries out of the car?
Mom: Baby Dixie-doo. Come here, honey. You’re as cute as a button.
Barbara: Donny, Billy, get inside!
Mom: Oh boy, here come the two little tornadoes.

The visual language in this scenario is very common. Moms and grandmas use these kinds of expressions everyday. Those expressions add character and interest to conversations.

Visual Language

and the Dark Arts

I said in an earlier article that interesting people keep conversations positive. However, even the most interesting people in the world need to use negative expressions, too. They often combine negativity with visual language for extra impact.

Scenario 13: Politics


President Donald Trump is one of the most interesting people in the world. During the 2016 US elections, Donald Trump’s nicknames for his opponents were infamous and effective. He called Jeb Bush—President George Bush’s brother—“Low-energy Jeb” and Hillary Clinton “Crooked Hillary”. Many people hate how he used nicknames and insults to win the election. But, results don’t lie. Visual language was not only interesting, but powerful.



Hillary Clinton is a very important and popular politician in America. Hillary Clinton used visual language when she said that Trump’s vision of America was “dark”.

Politicians love using visual language. The most powerful politicians use visual language because it makes them sound more interesting. It also helps their potential voters understand their message. Because anybody can understand the message, the message is more persuasive.

When you need to compete for the attention of a wide audience, sometimes you have to use negative and visual expressions.

Visual Language:

Difficult, but Rewarding

The challenge of using visual expressions in a foreign language is that many of them are idioms or culture-specific. Even if you understand idioms, using them is challenging.

But, there’s hope. It isn’t common to call children “little tornadoes” in Japanese, but it’s not difficult to imagine what it means. The Japanese saying, “Even monkeys sometimes fall from trees” doesn’t exist in English, but it’s not difficult to understand, either. So, with work, it is possible to learn and use visual expressions in a foreign language.

Using more visual language is challenging. However, when you learn how to “show”, your communication will become more interesting and more persuasive.


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