Show, Don’t Tell Isn’t Just for Fiction

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When we read fiction, we want to become immersed in the story, to feel like we are there, seeing and hearing and feeling what happens. To accomplish this, the author doesn’t just tell us what happened, he shows us.

At least he should. Thus, the oft-repeated advice, “Show, Don’t Tell”.

That’s good advice for all kinds of writing, including the writing lawyers do in our work.

Of course telling is important, too. But showing makes your writing come alive.

Showing adds interest, clarity, and an emotional element to your words. It helps the reader understand your point and makes it more likely that they’ll act on it.

When you show instead of merely tell, your words are more persuasive. The reader sees what you see and often comes to the same conclusion you came to.

When I had cases I thought my client should settle but they resisted, I didn’t just tell them my opinion, I showed them what could happen if they didn’t settle.

I described the process of filing, discovery, and trial, in vivid detail, explaining some of the questions a judge or jury might ask about weaknesses in the case, and explained that if they lost, they would be liable for the medical liens they’d signed, in addition to the costs of pursing the case. I explained how long this might take and how much time they’d have to take off of work.

When I was done, I asked the client what they wanted to do, but they often stopped me before I could ask that and told me to go ahead and settle.

I’d shown them the future and they didn’t like what they saw.

According to the old adage, “If you say it, they can doubt it; if they say it, it must be true”.

Showing also helps the reader to remember what you say.

When I took the Bar Exam, I remembered more material because of the notes I wrote to myself when I studied. For each rule, for example, I added notes about applicable cases we’d studied, and my own hypotheticals. During the exam, I could “see” those cases and hypos and this helped me to remember the rules.

Another benefit to showing versus telling is that it allows the reader’s mind to rest and enjoy your story or example, before continuing on to the heavier narrative.

How do you do it?

Showing means creating a picture in the mind of your reader, allowing them to see what you want them to see.

Saying, “My client is confident about getting his price,” is telling. Saying, “My client got 3 other offers this week,” is showing.

Instead of telling an adjuster, “My client is still in pain,” you could show him by saying, “My client takes 3 Extra Strength Excedrin every morning and sleeps with a heating pad every night”.

In other words, provide details. Use specific nouns and active verbs to show the reader what you want them to see.

Here are 3 additional ways to do that:

Examples

Add examples to clarify understanding. When you say, “This document will protect you personally,” add an example to show what that means: “If someone gets a judgment against your business, they won’t be able to come after your personal assets”.

Get in the habit of adding the words, “For example” or “What that means is. . .” (or equivalent) after your statements or questions.

Stories

Talk about other people who had the same or similar experience, to illustrate the risks or benefits, and to add an emotional element.

“I had a client who was in the same boat recently, and here’s what happened.”

Stories are one of your most effective ways to show.

Lists

Checklists of steps, instructions, useful resources, help the reader understand what they need to do and see themselves more capable of doing it.

Now you know the benefits of showing and not just telling, and some techniques for doing that. I used some of those same techniques in writing this.

I told, but I also showed. How did I do?

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