“Show don’t tell” is common advice in creative writing workshops. The idea is to show descriptions in such a way that helps the reader see or otherwise experience them. The examples here are infinite, but consider the differences between these two passages:
“The smell was strong, pungent. Jessie was severely impacted by it.”
“The strong and pungent smell made Jessie’s eyes water and caused her to gag.”
Which passage helped you understand the smell?
While the advice is show don’t tell, even the best examples of creative writing offer a mix of showing and telling. There’s an insight here as it relates to giving feedback effectively.
By attaching “show” elements to our telling, we provide another entry point for the feedback receiver to understand our perspective. In some cases, showing allows us to literally point to examples, which can bring clarity to the telling and create more focused conversations.
Consider the following examples. Which is more likely to help the receiver tease out and use the feedback?
“Our web design is old school, antiquated. Everything is static, and we often overlay text on drab stock photography. I’d like you to modernize our designs, pulling us into the future so our brand feels fresh for our targeted audience. Can you begin working on our homepage first?”
“Our web designs are old school, antiquated. Here is our homepage next to our two competitors. The dynamic element here on their call-to-action buttons feels more lively and engaging to me than our static elements. Their use of creative shapes and brighter colors to highlight people and key messaging captures my attention more than our drab stock photography, which often has hard-to-read text on top of it. Do you see what I mean here? [pause for response]. Can you review these and other modern designs on Dribbble and elsewhere to see how we can improve our web design? Based on what you discover, creating a new homepage mockup might be good so we have something to review together.”
When giving feedback, it’s always important to be as specific as possible. This specificity allows for greater clarity and, as Brené Brown says, clear is kind, unclear is unkind.
Where possible, one powerful way to be specific when giving feedback is to show and tell, to pair your telling with showing real examples — whether through visuals as in our example or through real, vivid stories that can bring your telling to life. This can help you break through the limitations of “telling” language, guide more focused feedback discussions, and ultimately reach communication alignment.
Before you go, ask:
- Have you received feedback that contained so much telling you couldn’t quite understand what it meant? What would have helped you to gain the clarity you needed?
- Watch How to Give Feedback: