Talk Less, Say More


—Bite-sized advice for better business writing—

September 23, 2020 

Talk Less, Show More

“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” 

—Anton Chekhov

Show, don’t tell is a golden rule of creative writing seminars, but this advice applies to your business writing as well.

"Showing" in a business-writing sense means using specific language and concrete examples to clarify your ideas instead of buzzwords and generalizations.

In fact, too much telling and not enough showing can make the difference between getting passed over and landing the job. Consider how these résumé writers describe their qualifications:

Applicant A: Strong leadership abilities

Applicant B: Recruited, hired, trained, and supervised more than 20 employees in a restaurant with $2 million in annual sales

Applicant A expresses an abstract platitude, telling the reader about being a good leader. Applicant B shares concrete evidence of leadership, demonstrating leadership skills through specific work experiences. By showing strong leadership, Applicant B makes the more compelling case for hire.

How can I "show" readers my ideas?

To ensure your writing is clear and convincing, try these "showing" strategies:

Use specific nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

Choose the most precise word for each situation. General nouns, verbs, and modifiers create vague, confusing messages. Specific language makes your message clear and effective.

Vague: The person had a good way to have more success.
Specific: Sara Jacobson outlined a practical plan for improving sales.

Offer concrete examples.

When you introduce a new idea to your reader, follow it with a specific example that clarifies your meaning.

Headings should follow a consistent approach to content and design. For instance, in a memo about a software update, you might cast your headings as a series of questions: “Why Should I Upgrade Software?” “What Features Have Changed?” and “How Can I Learn More?”

Put a number on it.

Quantifying an idea shows its value—literally.

Each false alarm costs the company $100.

Replace business-speak with plain language.

Business-speak (aka garbage language) is intentionally vague, communicating empty ideas with empty language. Use plain language to clarify your ideas.

Vague and off-putting: We didn't achieve peak upleveling in the last 365, and Rankin Technologies must keep our ducks in a row to make sure that the business reboots well for all of our employees and loyal customers. In accordance with managerial decision makers, corporate has operationalized a freeze on remunerative upscaling across the board, including those at the top.

Plain and clear: Our last fiscal year wasn't strong, and Rankin Technologies must keep a trim bottom line to make sure that the business continues for all of our employees and loyal customers. As a result, management has instituted a freeze on pay raises across the board, including those at the very top.

Should I always avoid "telling"?

No. Some generalities or commands are unavoidable, but you should balance the information you convey through telling with "showing" details.

This excerpt from a major insurance company’s "About Us" page does a terrific job of mixing showing and telling. It expresses a general proclamation (telling) but follows up with a concrete example (showing).

Putting our clients first since day one.

The year was 1859. An ox and a passenger train collided just outside Johnson Creek, Wisconsin, and two of our policyowners were killed in the wreck. The claims totaled $3,500, which was $1,500 more than our two-year-old company had on hand. Then President Samuel S. Daggett and his fellow trustees personally borrowed the money to settle the claims, proving that our dedication to our clients is as old as the company itself.

As a reader and potential client, you might react to the heading by thinking: A lot of companies claim to put their clients first, so why should I believe you? Yet, the historical anecdote that follows offers proof. It corroborates the image the company is selling with a clear example. That’s the power of showing: It offers logic and specificity, hallmarks of clear and convincing writing.


Play the Editor!

Revise this vague executive summary using "showing" strategies. (Be creative in your revisions!) Scroll down to see our recommendation. 

Our warehouse needs to be reorganized. The current warehouse organization causes some problems. Old product is in good spots, and new product is way in back. As lift-trucks go all the way to the back, they occasionally come close to bumping into one another. Getting rid of product that has not sold in years will be a real value-add for drivers and our overall shipping ecosystem. It will cut down on inefficiencies. Since sales usually slacken during Q1, sometime in the new year would be the best time to schedule this reorganization.


Get More Support

Refer to the Write for Business Guide, Courses, and past eTips for more strategies for clear and impactful business writing.


Editor’s Recommendation

The following revision adds specific nouns, verbs, and adjectives; replaces business-speak with plain language; and offers concrete reasons and examples to clarify ideas and show the extent of the problem. 

Our warehouse needs to be reorganized to remove stock that has not sold in years and to shift best-selling merchandise to the most accessible bays. The current warehouse organization causes numerous inefficiencies in unloading and shipping. For example, the time to unload semis carrying best-selling items is twice as long as the time to unload the same amount of low-selling freight. Old product resides in prime spots, and new product is overcrowded in inaccessible locations. As lift-trucks race to these locations, they occasionally have near misses, with one actual accident during the first week in December. Disposing of product that has not sold in years will open up bays for best-selling materials. It will cut down on time, gasoline, emissions, accidents, and opportunity cost for our warehousing. Since sales usually slacken during the first quarter, January would be the best time to schedule this reorganization.