Show, Don’t Tell: Why It’s Best To Undersell | Public Speaking Tip

I recently worked with a speaker who began his talk with this line:

“I have the coolest job in the world.”

His opening made me bristle. I knew my reaction was irrational, but there was something about the line that felt both accusatory (my job is better than yours) and subjective (yes, your job sounds cool, but it’s not for me).

I offered the speaker two better options:

1. Drop the line altogether and trust that the material is strong enough to lead audience members to form their own belief that you have a cool job; or

2. Rephrase it more humbly, as in, “Anyone who wakes up in the morning and thinks, ‘I have the coolest job in the world’ is a lucky person. I feel that way every day.”

Anchorman talking to spectators and announcing show
There’s a broader principle at play here, and it’s the one represented by the first option above: it’s generally better to show, not tell.

By sharing a well-organized and compelling narrative with (or without) strong visuals, there’s a good chance the audience will come to believe the speaker has a cool job—without needing to be told how to feel about it. The conclusions formed by audience members in that manner will be more powerful; people will be drawn toward the message rather than having it thrust upon them.

I commonly see a similar “telling, not showing” mistake in two related speaking situations.

“I’d like to tell you a story.”
Just tell the story.

Virtually every narrative form—books, films, comic strips, television shows—begins without the need to tell you that a story is about to start. It’s best to slip into the narrative and incorporate it seamlessly with the material that immediately preceded it.

“I have a really funny joke.”
Just share the humorous material. If people laugh, great. If they don’t, the audience will never know it was intended to get a laugh—so you can just keep going as if that had been the plan all along.
As leadership speaker Steve Bedwell wrote on my blog a few years ago:

Don’t set yourself up for failure. Never say: “Here’s a funny story…” Or “I heard this joke about…” A while back I was introduced as “The medical doctor who’ll make you laugh out loud every fifteen seconds.” I could feel the audience setting their watches!

Roger Ailes, who many years ago wrote a public speaking book called You Are The Message, advised:

“The most important thing to do is not set up any joke or story as the funniest thing in the world. Just segue into it and tell it.”

Their advice, and mine, is the same: show, don’t tell. 

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