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Writing great web content: Show not tell

Writing great web content: Show not tell

4 May 2021|Latest Posts, Marketing, PR, Promotion

Writing great web content: Show not tell
Writing great web content: Show not tell

By Joe Friedlein.  In his most commonly repeated quote, Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Whilst Chekhov was commenting at the turn of the twentieth century, ‘show not tell’ is a literary technique that can also be applied to web content today. 

In many cases, online readers are more impatient than fiction readers because they are often task-orientated, so marketers can’t indulge as much as an author might. However, a website that only tells and not shows can lack depth and persuasion.

What exactly is ‘show not tell’?

Traditionally, ‘show not tell’ is a technique that helps readers visualise a scene, a person or an experience. It is aimed at manipulating the reader’s senses to feel connected to the story, as opposed to simply stating the facts or informing. It’s what helps the reader to form a (positive or negative) emotional attachment to characters and keeps them turning the pages.

For example, introducing a new character in story could be done in two ways:

Telling: The small man was an artist and had paint on his clothes.

Showing: As she peered down over him, she saw streaks of water colours across his apron and the tip of a well-used paint brush protruding from his left pocket.

The latter is far more compelling and this approach can be applied to website copy too.

Why bother?

Marketers don’t necessarily have the word count nor the benefit of customer patience to employ long, evocative content on their site, so isn’t a straightforward approach always better? 

Undoubtedly there is a balance to be struck but just ‘telling’ can be a boring, empty and passive experience and not something that will help brands elicit loyalty and an emotional attachment from their customers. Any business can and does ‘tell’ but it doesn’t mean it’s true. Showing makes the words more believable, adds credibility and helps a business stand out.

It’s important to note that all customers, whether in a B2C or B2B environment, are real people, and we are all emotional creatures. Buying a new kettle or new photocopier might not reduce us to tears but there is always scope to engage on a level beyond the cold hard facts about a product.

Showing not telling also has the benefit of giving the customer the space to reach their own conclusions based on what has been inferred. No-one likes being given the hard-sell but being allowed to come to our own conclusion is empowering.

How to ‘show not tell’

Linguistically speaking, showing not telling, when done well, will bring copy to life as it is a much more active and direct style of writing. 

For example, ‘our client was helped by our knowledgeable team’ is not as powerful as ‘our knowledgeable team helped our client increase the quality of leads’. The former emphasises the knowledgeable team whereas the latter still allows our expertise to be communicated but the focus becomes the outcome for the customer.

Showing not telling generally avoids the use of meaningless superlatives such as claiming to be the best, most knowledgeable etc. Statistically, it’s unlikely anyway, and even if you are the best at what you do, find other ways to show it as your competitors are probably saying the same thing too. 

The English language is not short of synonyms so choose descriptors that are unique, that paint a picture, and that aren’t used by every other competitor in the sector. Avoid words like ‘excellent’ and ‘great’ at all costs and only use ‘passionate’, ‘dedicated’, ‘creative’ if they can be backed up with examples.

For example, rather than stating that you are ‘experienced’, tell your customers how long you’ve been in business and demonstrate how the business has adapted during that time. 

Or rather than state that you’re award-winning, explain what innovations led to this success. 

Many service-led businesses like to brag about their enviable client-retention rate, but rather than state this as fact, it would be more impactful to include a quote from the longest standing of those clients.

All of the above works best when it begins with client and customer conversations. Find out from the horse’s mouth exactly how you’ve helped and then use this perspective to subtly change the language and content on your site. 

Case studies vs. testimonials

Although there is no hard and fast rule about how to deploy these two tactics, case studies are often created by a business to demonstrate how they helped a customer, whereas testimonials are usually written from the customer’s perspective. 

The former are often brimming with facts but fail to capture any of the customer’s emotional response. Making room for both types of content on a site is essential in communicating what you did but also how you made a difference. Did that new photocopier help staff to see that you were investing in new technologies to speed up manual tasks? Has it become a talking point at the office water cooler?


So for example, if I told you that a new kettle brand boils quickly and very quietly, you might not believe me but I could say this instead:

“At just 70 decibels, you can hold a telephone conversation whilst the kettle is boiling and as it takes just over one minute to reach 100 degrees, you’ve barely got time to decide whether you want tea or coffee before it’s done.” 

This rather extreme description goes beyond a list of features and doesn’t even mention ‘quick’ or ‘quiet’ but it gets to the heart of how the kettle benefits the customer: for homeworkers it could mean they barely have to stop work to make a drink and can do so during a business meeting without anyone knowing. By allowing the customer to draw their own conclusion from the copy, they are more likely to believe it and then act on this belief.

The SEO challenge

One of the challenges of writing website content in this more flamboyant manner is that it doesn’t always reflect keyword research, which is obviously important for search engine optimisation purposes.

There will, therefore, always be a certain amount of ‘telling’ required on most websites to reflect keyword targeting for key products and services: meta content should always err on the side of telling not showing but a careful balance can be applied in on-page content. The most fun in terms of ‘showing’ can be had on pages that aren’t specifically for SEO purposes, such as those about the business, its history, its values, its approach and the team.

Paint a picture

Website copy is clearly not usually going to elicit gushing outbursts but in a competitive industry, businesses need to think about making a connection with their customer and this is where show not tell can be a helpful approach. It should allow the customer to draw on their own experiences and emotions and pull them into a scene, just as a novelist would. That scene may be imaging how a new kettle will transform their life in lockdown or how a new photocopier will get Tamsin in accounts off their back, but ultimately it will paint a very relatable picture.

As they say, a picture paints a thousand words but we can use language to paint that picture too and the more vivid and empathic that vision, the more customers will engage.

About the Author

Joe Friedlein
Joe Friedlein

Joe Friedlein has been involved with the web since the early days of ‘new media’, having worked both agency-side and in-house since the crest of the dot com wave. He fell in love with search and founded SEO and digital marketing agency Browser Media 16 years ago to help businesses profit from online marketing opportunities.