Show, Don't Tell: A Vital Lesson for Conductors & Copywriters

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“Brevity…” says Shakespeare… “is the soul of wit.”

But how does that help when we’re writing copy?

We’re not trying to make our prospect’s laugh. We’re trying to help them see that we have the solution to their problems.

Yet brevity is an important tool in your marketing messages. Going on and on can turn people off quickly. As Dr. Luntz says in his excellent book, Words that Work,

“Be as brief as possible. Never use a sentence when a phrase will do, and never use four words when three can say just as much.”

With all the thousands of messages people see every day, you need to aim for a brief yet potent message.

This reminds me of a lesson I learned in music school.

One of my musical proficiencies is orchestral conducting.

Rehearsal time is extremely precious. Every minute counts. And every minute costs. Professional orchestra musicians are members of a Players Union. The union works to protect the players rights, especially with regard to over-work.

Conductors must work within the confines of the union’s rules or be fined. For example… for every minute the conductor keeps the orchestra in rehearsal past the time limit… it costs the orchestra significant amounts of money.

Young conductors quickly learns the first rule of orchestral conducting: “Show, Don’t Tell.”

Orchestral conducting is similar to dance. Every move is choreographed after hours of painstaking preparation and private rehearsal. Every gesture provokes a different way of playing each note. One elbow out of place and the orchestra reacts.

Most conductors are such music nerds, like me (damaging admission?), and love talking about the music, sometimes to excess. It makes sense. They’ve (we’ve) spent so much time studying the music… learning about the composer who wrote it… their life and the circumstances under which they composed each piece. We want to share our insights.

But during rehearsal, there’s no time to lecture or pontificate.

It’s time to get to work. Time to start painting the sound and working out the communication between conductor and players.

As with any good marketing campaign or sales letter, the conductor’s job is to milk every last drop of emotion out of the music. This way, the audience can experience it as a sub-atomic, deeply personal level.

The conductor does this in performance with only the waving of his arms, the twiddling of fingers, and any and all facial expressions he can conjure.

In copywriting, it’s different. You’re usually far, far away from your audience. Your hands are tied in very much the same way that a conductors tongue is tied during performance.

So how can a copywriter “show” rather than “tell” when all he or she has are words?

The importance of Brevity

Like a conductor, words can get in the way for you when writing copy. But words are the only tools you have.

The issue is choosing the right words. The words that will get out of the way of the emotional communication that needs to occur for the prospect to see how your product can solve her problems.

“STOP TALKING!” was a common reproach from my teacher during rehearsal.

Before rehearsal one day, he pulled me aside to teach me an important lesson.

You should know the piece well enough, and have control of your gestures enough that words are unnecessary. Show them every detail. Don’t tell them what to do. Paint the music. Paint the phrase. Paint the emotion with your gestures. If for some extreme reason you have to stop and make verbal corrections, keep your comments to 7 words or less."

This is MUCH easier said than done. But with enough study of the score… enough familiarity with every person’s individual line throughout the piece… enough knowledge of each musical phrase that you can conduct without having to look at the music… it becomes easier.

Occasionally, when I’m conducting the community orchestra that my Dad and I work with (he founded it and I’m the Associate Conductor), I still need to stop and correct something. In these cases, I keep it as short as possible.

“Brass. Bar 231. Softer. And more connected.”

“Violins. Bar 458. Off the string.”

“Tuba. Bar 17. More staccato.”

And the right back to work!

So, in rehearsal, I work really hard to be brief in my talking so I can spend more time molding the sound into emotionally potent laser-beams.

So what in the world does this have to do with writing copy?

This week, David Garfinkel hosted a great podcast with the title “Show, Don’t Tell.”

He discussed how this isn’t always the best idea for a copywriter. Yet, he recommended 5 instances where it would serve a direct response campaign well to indeed “show,” rather than “tell.” He suggests, by simply describing each of these scenarios, that it is import to show…

  1. How your prospect feels now.

  2. How your prospect will feel, once the benefits of the offer kick in.

  3. The experience of using your product or service.

  4. (Sometimes) What others will say about the prospect after the benefits of the offer have kicked in, and how the prospect will feel.

  5. How to order the product.

In other words, when you’re writing copy, you should use brevity when it comes to “nuts and bolts.” Doing so makes room for visualization and emotion evoking descriptions. Bogging down the copy with too many words stamps on the emotional space available in every listener’s heart and mind.

Get out of the way of the emotions. Be brief on nuts and bolts and long on emotionally descriptive benefits.

Stop jabbering. Let the emotions sing!

And head on over to David Garfinkel’s excellent podcast to get more of his advice on the subject of “Show, Don’t Tell.” Click the pink-ish link below.

And may your copy ever be melodic and harmonious!


P.S. Don’t forget to listen to Episode #78 of David Garfinkel’s “Copywriter’s Podcast” where he discusses the concept of “Show, Don’t Tell” in your copywriting.