Show, Don’t Tell: 5 Lessons In Communication

by · June 12, 20132 comments

I recently attended a conference dedicated to creativity and commerce called C2-MTL. The paradox of the event is that you can’t teach people to be creative with traditional teaching methods. Yet I walked away awash in ideas.

How did this happen? How can you teach someone something that isn’t teachable The conference played by the first rule of communication: “show, don’t tell.”  Show, don’t tell is about conveying a message so that the lessons learned are personalized, rather than a list of laws. That’s a tall order. One that we, as marketers need to take to heart.

Here are 5 ways that this conference was able show innovation, rather than telling people how to be innovative and they can be applied to communicating lessons in leadership, writing, speaking or marketing.

1.       Create An Experience

The environment and the in-person experience in itself is part of the communication. There is a reason why churches have soaring towers and stained glass windows.  The design of a church invites people to go beyond mundane thoughts and feelings.

The conference environment at C2-MTL was in a dramatic, recently renovated 19th Century building that sometimes houses modern art and had custom-built spaces designed to encourage collaboration and small meetings. There was a loft space where cocktail parties and other special events could occur overlooking the conference floor. There were small rooms set off by unusual looking dividers where people who signed up in advance could have time to meet the speakers. No sterile lecture halls here.

2.       Tell A Story
A story provides lessons that can be translated and interpreted

Show, don’t tell is about storytelling. The beauty of teaching through storytelling is that a story provides lessons that can be translated and interpreted. Storytelling inspires people because someone is sharing what they have accomplished and the listener learns it is possible and can use her imagination to decide how to apply it.

Blake Mycoski of Tom’s Shoes told the story of how he went from selling 35 pairs of shoes to selling millions by performing an extraordinary act of charity—giving away one pair of shoes for every pair he sells. I doubt that everyone who left that presentation believed that he was suggesting that everyone give away one item for every item they sell, yet there were lessons along the way about doing extraordinary things to set your business apart, and about having a purpose to your business that were more impactful because of the story.

Bobbie Brown told the story of how after she was acquired by Estee Lauder, her business suffered because the atmosphere was out of sync with her brand.  When she moved her office and the culture changed, business improved. There were no tactics that anyone could walk away with, just a clear picture of how corporate culture matters.

3.      Use A Metaphor

Think about the problem in a new way by making it look like something else. Instead of conference as learning opportunity, C2-MTL was more like a theater experience. (It helped that Cirque du Soleil was one of the sponsors of course.)  As one example, instead of a standard biographical introduction of the speakers, a costumed, storytelling master of ceremonies appeared under big-top style lighting reading a story from an oversized Steampunk style book . There was music on stage between presentations and a set that made the stage more dramatic.

A metaphor (conference as theater in this case) is a shortcut to understanding something in a new way by comparing it to something very different.  If I say conference as theater, I don’t have to give you a list of what I mean.

4.      Set An Example
To be creative, look at a problem from a new angle

One main reason people go to conferences to network.  Like-minded people with similar needs and interests are gathered together in real life.  If that didn’t matter, there would be no point to spending money on flights, hotels and conference fees.  Yet, at a typical conference, networking is a haphazard activity at best. C2-MTL purported to be innovative and showed that by inviting attendees to use a new software tool,  E-180, that allowed them to set up their profiles before the conference and enter specific offers and requests. Other attendees could then request meetings to learn or teach any subject. Over 1,000 meetings were scheduled this way.

Another case of creativity by example was the presentation by Andy Nulman. Instead of the standard presentation (of which there were few at this conference) it was an improvisation about creativity.

Nulman had arranged for images he had never seen before to be onto the giant screen behind him. In one image was a photo of a man sticking his head out of a car trunk.  Nulman’s lesson form the slides?  To be creative, look at a problem from a new angle.  So, if you’re a car designer, consider examining a care by sitting in the trunk.  I remember that example well because the image was so representative of looking at a problem from a new angle and it showed (rather than told us) that sometimes the pressure of having to find a solution quickly can lead to creativity.

5.      Reward The Best Examples

Intel, a sponsor of the conference ran a competition to find emerging innovative talent.  The winners and their stories were an integral part of the events, and the meet and greets.  By offering an incentive to people to be creative, the sponsors could highlight examples of creative endeavors.

Shining a light on the best examples of what you are trying to teach, is another way of communicating by example—the example of others.

As marketers, our job is to educate, inspire, talk to and listen to people. We’re often inclined to do this by lecturing but the most effective way is a less direct route that has more impact and better staying power. Show, don’t tell.

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About Ilana Rabinowitz

Ilana Rabinowitz

Ilana Rabinowitz is the vice-president for marketing for Lion Brand Yarn and blogs about social media at Marketing Without A Net. Rabinowitz approaches marketing with an uncompromising focus on the customer and a grounding in psychology and neuroscience to understand what motivates people to make buying decisions.  She believes that businesses need to develop their own media as a means of creating a branded experience for customers.  She has spoken at digital marketing conferences including Web 2.0, Blogher Business and Internet Retailer. She is the author of a book about psychology, a book about mindfulness and co-author of a book about the culture of knitting. Follow her on Twitter at @ilana221.

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  • Byron

    I always love these ” I heard about the Mashable opportunity from a friend of a friend and came in for an interview…” Like, you just came in for an interview?? Like, the interview was just waiting for you? You were a digital journalist and that alone qualified you for the job? Who did you write for?