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Show, don’t tell

Contributed by , and

In Sum

Use metaphor, visuals and action to show your message rather than falling into preaching, hectoring or otherwise telling your audience what to think.

A picture is worth a thousand words. In today’s image-driven news cycle and mass media culture, this is truer than ever. Effective creative campaigns must be image-driven, too. In other words, show, don’t tell. And there are lot of ways to do it.

Lead with story, not facts. Facts rarely speak for themselves. While the factual accuracy of your message is essential, facts should only serve as the supporting details for the story, not the hook that makes the story compelling.

If you want to convey the devastation of unemployment, don’t lead with statistics. Tell us a compelling story about one person. Then tell us there are ten million more like her out there.

Make it visual. A lot of important stuff is hard to talk about — it’s too big, far away, abstract or complex. Props, visuals and concrete language can help bring things down to human scale. Take economic inequality, for example. You can easily get lost in the finer points of the tax code, but when billionaire Warren Buffet says that his secretary pays more taxes than he does, and that that’s wrong, it’s hard to argue with. To draw attention to the increasing disparity between CEO and worker pay, one group unveiled a tiny replica of the Washington Monument that was 419 times smaller than the actual one they were holding their press conference in front of.

Use powerful metaphors. With metaphor you can show something for what it is, rather than have to explain it. To find your compelling metaphor, look for something that embodies what you are trying to communicate. Recently, the immigration debate in the U.S. has been usefully engaged via the metaphor of migratory birds (“Do migrating birds need passports too?”), neatly pointing up the absurdity of the situation, without focusing on any specific policy or piece of legislation.

Speak with actions. Instead of telling, act out what it is that you want to say. At protests, whenever there are lines of police protecting a bank, a metaphor is being enacted that reflects the reality of the situation: the state defends the wealthy from the rest of us. Sometimes it’s enough to just point that out — or you can ham it up see CASE: Teddy bear catapult.

A well-designed action explains itself, and ideally offers multiple ways into the issue. You want your audience to reach their own conclusion, rather than feeling like they are being told what to think.

Preachy isn’t persuasive. Whether we’re telling a story, conjuring a scene, offering up a metaphor, leading by example, or letting our actions speak volumes, there are millions of ways to convey our message and values without launching into a political diatribe. Let’s do ourselves and our audience a favor: Show, don’t tell.


Doyle Canning was struck by a tear gas canister in the streets of Seattle in 1999, and has never been the same since. She is a creative strategist with a deep commitment to building broad-based movements for social justice and an ecological future. Doyle is a co-founder of the Center for Story-based Strategy (formerly known as smartMeme). She delivers training, coaching, facilitation and framing to high-impact networks who are taking on greedy corporations, corrupt politicians, racist laws and polluting policies. Doyle is co-author of Re:Imagining Change with Patrick Reinsborough. She lives with her husband in Boston, where she enjoys practicing yoga, cooking, and making music.

Patrick Reinsborough is a strategist, organizer and creative provocateur with over twenty years of experience campaigning for peace, justice, indigenous rights and ecological sanity. Patrick has helped organize countless creative interventions, including mass direct actions that shut down the Seattle WTO meeting in 1999 and protested the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He is the author of numerous essays on social change theory and practice, including co-writing Re:Imagining Change (PM Press 2010). He is the co-founder of the Center for Story-based Strategy (formerly known as smartMeme), a movement support organization which harnesses the power of narrative for fundamental social change. He lives with his family in the San Francisco Bay area.

Kevin Buckland is an artist, artivist organizer and the "Arts Ambassador" for the grassroots global network 350.org. He has worked with the International Youth Climate Network to promote creative communication and beauty in the call for climate justice across the globe. Harkening on the call to "make this movement as beautiful as the planet we are fighting to save,” he employs comedy, tragedy, farce, satire and a great deal of cardboard in his attempts to end empire and globalize justice. Videos, writings and participatory projects can be seen on his website.


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