Show, Don’t Tell: a writer’s and trainer’s mantra we can improve

As a young boy, my favorite part of Kindergarten (after milk and naps) was “show and tell.” I truly loved standing up in front of the class and showing them something I’d found, learned, or otherwise enjoyed. As a writer, trainer, and instructional designer, I learned to “show don’t tell.” Then I learned the Kindergarten way was better.

Messy Cables
An Example of Messy Cables

Show, don’t tell

The idea is that if readers can build a good mental picture, they will appreciate the writing more. Instead of

Jim was old.

A better way might be to say something such as:

Jim ambled slowly as he leaned on his cane. His eyes were squinting behind his thick glasses. The years had taken the color from his coal black hair and left it ashen.

Did you build a clearer picture from the first example or the second? For most, it was the second. The idea of building a mental picture is central to good fiction but does it work for designing learning?

“Grammar Girl” has an excellent article about the concept on QuickandDirtyTips.

“Showing” in instructional design

When I teach about cabling in Learning Tree’s Course 450 Introduction to Networking, rather than saying “make your cables neat” I say something like:

Imagine confronting a server rack where the cables are run ever which way. They cross, they loop, they go from visible to hidden: it’s impossible to trace any one of them. Making a simple change could take hours instead of minutes, and you fear you’ll miss happy hour. Then imagine neatly run cables: they’re easy to follow, no looks and smooth bundles. You’ll be in and out in minutes. That’s clean cabling.

Then, I show them what clean cabling looks like, through diagrams and photos. That’s “show and show and tell.”

Show and show and tell

Whether or not people learn better through words or images is a matter of debate in the instructional design community. That’s not important here. What is important is that we take advantage of two or more different ways of explaining the idea. The goal is to ensure learners understand and apply the concepts being taught. By reinforcing words with a picture or picture with words, the instructional designer takes advantage not only of different modes of presentation but of the principle of reinforcement. And then reinforce the word picture or image with a succinct statement of the initial concept (e.g. the “That’s clean cabling” from the example above).

Therefore, the principle is: show with a clear word picture or image, show again with an image or word picture, then tell to summarize what you’ve shown.

“Show, don’t tell” is critical for marketing and fiction. It helps people build a mental picture or visual image of a product, a scene, or a character. But in learning design, we need to expand that to “show and show and tell” to reinforce the learning.

image sources

  • Messy Cables: Course 468 Notes, Image from Dr. Robert Cromwell

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