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  • Susan Snedaker

When to Show, When to Tell

In the world of fiction writing, there’s a well-worn saying used to teach new writers to create more engaging fiction. The writer should show the character’s actions, words, and circumstances rather than just telling the reader what they need to know. It's more interesting to read that Diana's face turned red as she looked at her shoes than to read Diana was embarrassed. That's show versus tell.

In the world of education, especially adult education, the wisdom runs along a similar line. Let people discover on their own and they’re more likely to remember it later. Helping Joe work through the math equation is better than telling him the answer is fourteen.

The problem with using these techniques in business can be twofold. First, attempts to show, not tell, can come off as incredibly condescending. Second, it can waste valuable time. The key is in discerning when to show (how to find an answer) and when to tell (the answer).

show or tell

Jason, an experienced IT guy who just joined the firm, turns to JoAnne and asks "Hey, what's the IP address of the new DNS server that we're testing?" Now, JoAnne could say "Well, Jason, how would you go about finding that out? What resources are at your disposal to figure that out?" or JoAnne could quickly say "It's We keep that information in the technical database, I'll send you the link." Which would you prefer if you were Jason trying to solve a technical problem or configure something? Of course, if Jason asks JoAnne that question several more times, JoAnne might say "Remember, that kind of information is in the technical database. Would you like me to re-send the link?"

As an IT leader, you're going to face situations where someone needs to learn a new skills. Your job is to determine the most effective approach. Let's look at a couple of real world examples. Throughout this article, you can substitute coaching for showing if that makes more sense to you.


A colleague who works at a mid-sized, international software company and I were talking recently. He indicated that he had attempted to help one of his staff figure out how to approach a difficult conversation. My colleague, I’ll call him Will, said he tried asking leading questions to guide Alecia. It went a bit like this.

Will: So, how did that make you feel?

Alecia: I was pretty mad.

Will: How do you think you should approach this?

Alecia: I am going to send an email and make it very clear how I feel.

Will: Are there any other options you might want to consider?

Alecia: I’m not sure what you mean.

Will: Well, what other options are there for addressing this?

Alecia: I don’t know. What did you have in mind?

Right there. It became a guessing game for Alecia. 'Guess what Will has in mind because clearly Will does not agree with sending the email.' The problem is, Alecia doesn’t know what Will is getting at so her thinking has now flipped to solving the problem with Will instead of solving the original problem.

As Will and I talked about this, I was pretty direct (as usual). I told him I would have said “Alecia, in my experience, this is the kind of conversation that is best done face to face. Email can't convey enough context and you can't gauge the receiver’s reaction over email. I’d suggest that you go talk to them. What do you think of that approach?”

Now, there’s no guessing game and Alecia has actionable information. She is smart. She will certainly connect the dots because she's been given a suggestion and the rationale behind it. In the future, she’s going to know that difficult conversations probably should be done in person. In addition, the response is respectful of her intelligence. By ‘giving’ her the answer, it's assumed she is smart enough to generalize. This is an instance when telling is more effective than showing. Now, if she had disagreed with the approach and wanted to stick with her original email plan, we could have a very productive conversation.


Now, let’s look at another scenario with a friend of mine who works at a financial services firm in a Contracts department. Brittany feels her new hire, Jonathan, is ready to take on a project on his own. She gives him a large packet of papers. The contract appears to be about forty pages long and it has very small, dense type. He looks at her and asks if they can review it together. He’s asking her to tell, not show. She suggests he go through the document, mark it up, and make notes about questions, suggestions or concerns. She’ll do the same. She sets up a time for the end of that week to sit down and compare notes.

This is a case where Jonathan will only learn the in’s and out’s by working through it. Brittany is smart to have him work on the document and to come prepared to discuss. This is a practical use of their time and a great use of show versus tell. If Brittany were to review her markups with Jonathan, he might not understand the process of reviewing the contract nor of what kind of thinking is required. By having Jonathan take a first pass at it, he will learn to read the contract more effectively. When they meet, Brittany can tell Jonathan about some of the techniques she uses. He’ll be more ready to adopt the information after he’s navigated a contract on his own. Of course, Brittany is not allowing Jonathan to review and submit a contract all on his own without guidance or review - that would be foolish - but she is simulating that experience so Jonathan can learn.


As a leader, it’s not always easy to discern when to show and when to tell. Sometimes there is no right answer. But sometimes it’s abundantly clear. If you find yourself creating a guessing game, you probably should tell (or learn to ask better questions, but that's a whole other discussion). If the answer is short, clear and static (i.e. it’s almost always a good idea to have difficult conversations face-to-face), just give the person information and let them process it. If the situation is ever-changing (such as reviewing contracts), where a skill must be developed, then showing is usually the better choice.



Trust that your people are smart and treat them that way. Give them a chance to grow and learn by using the appropriate approach. Ensure you provide the right guidance at the right time in the right way. You’ll always get a better result.

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