Is 'Show, Don't Tell' Good Writing Advice For Copywriters?

February 15, 2023
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One of the first things a teacher discusses in a formal writing class is the concept of 'show, don't tell.' You would need more than a sentence to discuss the difference between the two, but it is easily recognizable. Consider the following examples:

  1. "I am smitten with her because of how she acts."
  2. "She laughed again, as if she said something very witty, and held my hand for a moment, looking up into my face, promising that there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see. That was a way she had."

The second item is an excerpt from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. You do not need to know much about the story to see that the speaker is taken with the woman; the words show you his feelings. On the other hand, the first item is a direct statement; the narrator tells the reader what he feels.

In the first item, you do not have to dig deep to know what the person wants to convey. Everything is on the table, and you can understand things right away. In the second item, though, the person's feelings become apparent at the end of the passage. It gives people a window into things beyond the narrator's feelings. For instance, this passage shows the mannerisms of the other character. It also shows that the narrator is someone who finds this behavior enchanting.

'Show, don't tell' is an excellent rule in creative writing. However, it is not always as effective in copywriting. Writing a short story is vastly different from writing for a landing page or a blog post. Though both literary writers and copywriters use stories to achieve their goals, they take different approaches to storytelling.

How Storytelling Is Different For Copywriters

In prose, writers expect the reader to go through events from start to finish. They also focus on the narrative the author wants to highlight, so the author's political ideologies and beliefs influence the story. Also, in a literary work, the setting is essential; it gives color to a piece and grounds it. Finally, literary pieces have a captive reader. People who pick up books fully intend to consume the story's message, or at least try. They are also likely to reread stories.

In contrast, a visitor to a webpage reads landing page copy to learn about a specific topic. They are not likely to linger after they've gotten the information they need unless you point them to related posts that could be just as helpful. Landing page copy also has no setting or characters; at most, there will be a 'you' meant to represent the reader. 

Traditionally, copy for ads kept people at arm's length. Ad copy is not the place to talk about feelings or weave a narrative; in the past, it used to be just for explaining why a product or service provides value to an audience. It also takes a while to show rather than tell someone your point. When people are online, they are much more likely to want things said straight, which is why many copywriters prefer to tell.

Why Telling Is At The Forefront In Copywriting

If you don't tell the audience what you want them to get from your ad, you risk leaving your messages as implications. People won't follow your CTA if you hedge—"you could contact us at (number)" is less potent than "contact us at (number)." Implications hurt your conversions. When you hint at promises or benefits or when you aren't clear about your value proposition, you lose a portion of your audience. There is too much room for interpretation, which means a greater possibility of errors.

Let's take this in terms of domestic duties. Suppose you want your partner to do the dishes. The best way for you to get what you want is to tell them this directly. If you rely on implications—let the dishes pile, for example, or comment on another couple's helpfulness to each other—your partner might not figure it out and carry on with ignoring the pile of dirty pots and plates.

The same is true for users online. If you don't tell them that you want them to sign up for your newsletter, they wouldn't be inclined to click the button at the end of your page. This is not the time to stick to showing your audience the Subscribe button. You have to tell them that you want them to subscribe; otherwise, they'll carry on with their browsing and ignore the button.

However, showing has its benefits, even in copywriting. Today, people want to know more about a brand and see how its values align with their personal beliefs. When talking about philosophical things like these, it is better to show rather than tell. Showing two friends from different social circles that they like the same bands is a better way to convince them to hang out instead of saying, "I think you'll like each other."

A Good Compromise: Show, Then Tell

Show readers what is unusual or exciting about the message or position you want them to take. Give them scenarios, provide statistics, imply how they will benefit from using your product or service. Afterward, follow it up with clear and meaningful explanations. You can also tell and then show. Tell your visitor about a service you have. Then, prove that it works. A testimonial from a happy client or customer, a case study showing how your service helps others succeed, and other similar techniques can provide the evidence they need.

You can take a multimedia approach as well. You can show things about your brand through videos and photos, testimonials, and case studies, and you can tell people about it through copywriting. Combining these two approaches to storytelling will help make a stronger case for you.


Showing and telling are two aspects of good storytelling. Although copywriting might lean on the latter instead of the former, it needs both types to deliver a memorable experience. Convince readers that they need your services and products using the right blend of direct statements and implications.

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