“Show, don’t tell” is one of the cornerstones of powerful writing.
The use of concrete details can tell your story for you. I don’t care if you’re writing a sales letter, a blog post, or a short story for The New Yorker, you need details.
They have to be vivid.
They have to be compelling.
And they have to matter to your reader.
So, let’s dive into one of the most important rules of effective writing.
Instead of telling readers “the car chase was exciting,” the writer finds the perfect details to put the reader right into the action, with the gear shift vibrating under her hand and muddy grit splattering the windshield.
Learn the art of using concrete details and you’ll learn how to put your readers into different emotional states.
Create credibility with incidental details
Which of the following two do you find more convincing?
“A local business used my marketing services and attracted significantly more customers.”
“Jenny Lee — who makes a damned fine coconut cream pie, by the way — used my techniques to promote her bakery.
Before she talked to me, she used to see about 60 customers a day. Last Saturday she served 314 happy customers, and she’s seeing those numbers climb every day.
She told me she was going to take out that little bell that “dings” when a customer comes in, because the dinging is driving her up the wall.
Mind you, it’s her pies and cakes (and that great smile) that bring them back, but it’s my marketing techniques that got them through her door in the first place.”
It may not win any writing prizes, but the second example is inherently more convincing.
It’s stuffed with concrete details … the name of the baker, what kind of pie she makes, precise numbers.
The writing speaks to multiple senses … the taste of coconut cream pie, the sight of a great smile, the ding of the customer bell.
The more specific details you use, the more credible the story becomes.
You don’t necessarily need to pile them on the way I have here. Good novelists spend a lot of time and energy coming up with the perfect single detail that tells the whole story.
But if you don’t happen to be a great novelist, give yourself permission to layer in a few details to make the picture come alive in your reader’s mind.
This is a big part of why long copy consistently outperforms short copy, by the way. Long copy gives you room to add the specific details that make your story more compelling and believable.
Use color to paint a mental picture
We are a visual species.
No matter what your dominant learning style is, you’ll remember new information better when it’s accompanied by a strong visual.
While actual images can be valuable additions, one of the strongest ways to create visual impact in your copy is to use a color word.
This almost forces your reader to paint a mental picture, which anchors your idea in his consciousness.
Remember the “red hills of Georgia” from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech? Then there was Homer’s wine-dark sea. Or to go from the sublime to the ridiculous, how about Monica Lewinsky’s infamous blue dress?
Associating an idea with a color is a great way to “show, don’t tell” in order to anchor a particular thought or fact in your reader’s memory.
When you’re looking for concrete details for your copy, try to incorporate a color. The impression you make will be more striking and more enduring.
Make your details relevant
Ever started reading a book that began with a detailed description of a sunset, or the ocean, or a pristine forest? How long did it take you to start skimming until something interesting happened?
Microbiology textbooks are full of details, but most people don’t find them interesting.
Details have to answer an interesting question for the reader. Talk about something that benefits them (like seeing more customers and making more money).
Talk about their problems. Talk about people — we almost always find stories about people interesting. Talk about an emotional trigger, like food or babies or bankruptcy or an unexpected death.
Details about most products are boring. Details about people and how they’re solving their problems are much more interesting.
Almost every piece of writing can be improved with the skillful use of concrete details that “show, don’t tell.” Start using details today to make your copy more persuasive, more memorable, and more effective.