Show don’t Tell: A new (to me) perspective on change leadership

As an experienced consultant with a professional heritage in engineering, I have absolutely no academic credentials in literature or any other media. However, with children that studied film and literature at first degree level and also as someone that enjoys films, I have come to understand the idea of ‘show don’t tell’ as used in the criticism of films and all story telling media. As I’ve explored the idea, I’ve come to realise its value as a new perspective on what we do as leaders. The value of leadership that does much more, leadership that shows how rather than just telling you how. And building on our recent insight piece ‘stories matter’, consider how much more powerful you and your team could be in leading change if you did more showing how things are and could be different and less telling.

Taking the ‘show don’t tell’ perspective into our work in the design, delivery and leadership of change enabled through digital technology, it’s clear that its more powerful to demonstrate change in practice rather than just communicate about the change. Both demonstration and communication are important, but I notice that perhaps because it’s easier there is still too much telling. Reflecting on my own experience, a showing approach is more sustainable because of the more active engagement of the other party, in the same way that the audience is more engaged in a story if the author shows you what is happening, the approach invites the audience to work harder at understanding what is going on, rather than just telling you as reader or viewer. For me this a new perspective on the power of such things as agile development where we have seen the benefits in quality of development as well as pace though such things as the minimum viable product (mvp), the sprint etc. I think we can do more if we bring the idea to our work on leading change.

So, what does “show, don’t tell” mean? In storytelling, it is considered vital to master the art of showing. When you tell rather than show, you simply inform your reader of information rather than allowing them to deduce anything. You’re supplying information by simply stating it. For example, getting a character to describe how someone is feeling. You might report that a character is “tall,” or “angry,” or “cold,” or “tired.” That’s telling.

Showing paints a picture for the reader to develop in their mind’s eye. Rather than telling that your character is angry, show it by describing his face flushing, his throat tightening, his voice rising, his slamming a fist on the table. When you show, you don’t have to tell. Cold? Don’t tell us; show us. Your character pulls her collar up, tightens her scarf, shoves her hands deep into her pockets, turns her face away from the biting wind. Tired? He can yawn, groan, stretch. His eyes can look puffy. His shoulders could slump. Another character might say, “Didn’t you sleep last night? You look shot.” When you show rather than tell, you make the reader part of the experience. Rather than having everything simply imparted to him, he sees it in his mind and comes to the conclusions you want. More importantly they are the reader’s conclusions. What could be better than engaging your reader, giving him an active role in the storytelling, or should we say the story-showing? Clearly, it is a mistake to take show, don’t tell as inviolable. The theatre of the reader or viewers’ mind is more powerful than anything Hollywood can put on the screen. Well-written books and films trigger the theatre of the mind and allow readers to create their own visual, to be active rather than passive participants.

Our insight that if you take this maxim of ‘show don’t tell’ into your leadership you will lead more powerful change, you will lead more sustainable change, it will be everybody’s change not just yours. Looking ahead, think about:

  • designing the process of change to have much more time allocated to activities where colleagues learn how to change rather than are just told;
  • changing your behaviour to show new leadership approaches in action; and as we’ve said before,
  • shifting the balance of your change comms to stories that show the change in action.