Show Don’t Tell – Decoded

by Doug Lipman

lipmanIf you’ve hung around storytelling (or acting or writing) long enough, you’ve probably heard the familiar instruction:

“Show, don’t tell.”

This maxim points toward a helpful idea: in order to make a scene or sentence maximally vivid for your listeners, you need to “show” what happened, rather than “tell” ABOUT what happened.

Here’s a simple example of “telling”:

Version 1. Sheila’s apartment floor was a disgusting mess.

In contrast, here’s one way to begin “showing” the mess:

Version 2. Sheila kicked the pile of dirty clothes out of the doorway. Unfortunately, they skidded against the night stand, dislodging the pile of dirty dishes stacked on it. Crash! ..

As you can see, Version 2 can help a listener imagine the exact nature of the mess, rather than simply accept the vaguer “was a mess.”

Three Problems?

As useful as “show don’t tell” can be, it is fuzzy advice, with three serious problems.

Problem #1: You need both

“Show don’t tell” makes you think that “telling” is always bad. In truth, only certain parts of your story are worth being “shown”: the parts that your listener needs to imagine fully in order to experience the central drift of your story. Everything else should be “told.”

In other words, suppose you are a painter and have been told that bright colors stand out most, so you paint everything in bright colors. The result? Nothing stands out.

Problem #2: It’s not black and white

“Show don’t tell” suggests that either you are “telling” or you are “showing.” In fact, both represent adjustments that can be made in various ways. The real power is to understand the range of choices available to you, then to choose the best adjustments that suit your purposes.

Painters don’t just use white and black; they use the entire scale of grays.

Problem #3: It’s two different choices

“Showing vs. Telling” is not a single choice. It actually consists of two different adjustments:

a. Concreteness. Notice how these three sentences get progressively more concrete:

Her floor was cluttered.

Her floor was strewn with dirty clothes.

Her floor was strewn with a full week’s worth of dirty jeans and t-shirts.

A “cluttered floor” is more concrete than “a mess”. But specifying that it’s cluttered with dirty clothes is still more concrete, etc.

The more concrete the description, the more vividly your listeners are likely to imagine.

b. Interpretive Language. “Telling” can involve words that interpret the actions or descriptions in the story for the listener—rather than letting the listener interpret for herself. Notice how the language in these three sentences gets progressively more interpretive:

Her floor was cluttered.

Her floor was dirty.

Her floor was a disgusting mess.

“Cluttered” is less judgmental than “dirty,” which, in turn, is less judgmental than “a disgusting mess.”

The less you interpret for your listeners, the more likely they are to create their own interpretations. If I tell you what to think about something, you might or might not accept my interpretation. But if you interpret it yourself, you become actively committed to the understanding you create.

Clarity—At Last!

Now we’re in a position to correctly restate “show don’t tell”:

Adjust each piece of your story, so that every piece is optimally (more or less, as required by your goals for the story) imagined and interpreted by your listeners.

More-concrete descriptions will be more vividly imagined.

 Less-interpretive descriptions involve the listener more in interpreting for themselves.

Now that you understand what “show don’t tell” really consists of, you can work to perfect the separate skills – and you can teach those skills to others.

About Doug

In 1970, Doug Lipman accidentally began telling a story to a group of highly resistant, emotionally disturbed adolescents; within moments, they ceased resisting. Since then, he has used training, writing, and coaching—in many settings, industries, and countries of the world—to help people discover the transformative power of storytelling.
Doug is the author of award-winning books, including Improving Your Storytelling and The Storytelling Coach: How to Listen, Praise, and Bring Out People’s Best. He has performed across the U.S. and Canada and as far away as Austria, Belgium, Singapore and New Zealand. Doug was a founding board member of NSN.  Don’t miss out on Doug’s workshop on “Perfecting Your Hidden Storytelling Skills” at the 2016 National Storytelling Conference – register today:

Contact Doug

Learn more about Doug:



by Kate Dudding

duddingSome people say there is a lot of evil in the world these days.

Mr. Rogers said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”

I witnessed one example of evil when I visited Oklahoma City in 2005 to attend the National Storytelling Conference. One morning of the conference was devoted to visiting the Oklahoma City National Memorial, the site of the bombing of the Federal Building on April 19, 1995.

Standing outside the Memorial, I saw on the left, a large grass plot, with many bronze chairs on it, some large and some small.

On the right, I saw an old tree, gnarled and asymmetrical, but covered with green leaves.

Behind that old tree I saw a number of new trees, all the same kind and the same size, obviously planted at the same time.

All around, I saw office buildings, and in the distance, neighborhoods.

Then I went into the museum. I saw film taken from a traffic helicopter minutes after the bombing. The middle of the Federal Building was just gone. I learned that the grass plot was the exact footprint of the Federal Building.

I saw The Gallery of Honor, with photos and mementos of each of the 168 victims. I learned that there was a bronze chair on the grass plot for each of the victims, 149 large chairs for the adults who were killed (including three pregnant women), 19 small chairs for the children who were killed. (Unfortunately there had been a daycare center in the Federal Building.)

I learned about the 850 people who had been injured and how that old, gnarled, asymmetrical American Elm tree, originally in the parking lot of the Federal Building, had been named The Survivor Tree in their honor.

I learned about the over 10,000 rescuers and volunteers who came to the site after the bombing, and about the one rescuer who was killed. I learned how those new trees, called The Rescuers’ Orchard, had been planted in their honor.

I learned that over 300 other buildings in Oklahoma City had been damaged by the bombing and that one third of the population of Oklahoma City knew either a victim or a survivor of the bombing.

Then the National Storytelling Conference had three people speak who had been affected by the bombing.

A survivor said, “It seemed like a normal morning. Then at 9 am, there was a tremendous noise, everything shook and it was suddenly completely dark. I tried to get out, but nothing was where it had been. My coworkers and I started calling out, and together we found the way out of the building and into the light. A man walking by looked at my face, and took off his shirt saying, “Lady, you should press this against your bleeding face.’ He stayed with us, finding where we had to wait. Since we weren’t badly injured, we sat on a curb for our vehicle to come. There weren’t enough ambulances in Oklahoma City for everyone who was injured. So hotels were asked to send their curtesy vans to help. I got into one of those hotel vans. The hotel van driver asked, ‘I was told to take you to the Veterans Hospital. Does anyone know how to get there?’ Luckily, one of us did.”

“I stayed overnight at the hospital. They stitched me up using over 100 stitches. Then my family arrived and I went home.”

“A friend called a few days after the bombing. She asked, ‘Can I do something for you?’ I replied, ‘Thank you, but my family is with me. I’m fine.’ The friend almost desperately asked again, ‘Isn’t there anything I can do for you?’ It was then that I realized that my friend needed to give, so I needed to receive. I said embarrassedly, ‘Well, my kitchen floor needs mopping.’ ‘I’ll be right over.’ My kitchen floor has never been mopped that thoroughly.”

“Then a neighbor, someone I knew to wave to, but not much more, came to my door, and offered to cut my lawn for the rest of the season. Since you’re mostly from out of town, I need to tell you that here in Oklahoma we have a long growing season. I told him it was too much, just cutting my lawn this week would be enough. But my neighbor insisted, ‘I really want to do this for you.’ I again agreed to receive.”

A rescuer told us, “Family and friends of victims cheered each day as we rescuers entered the site looking for more bodies. They were waiting for us to find the bodies of their loved ones, yet they cheered us.”

“There were lots of out of town rescuers who joined in the search for bodies. After every shift, those rescuers went back to their cots in the convention center. They found their clothes cleaned and folded, the bed covers turned down, and a chocolate candy on their pillow.”

“Working at the site was rough on our clothes – so many sharp edges, so much dirt. People donated clothing for us to wear, more clothing than we needed. Other people stood in line for hours to donate blood for the survivors. City crime and fires were down by 50% for weeks after the bombing. I guess people knew the police and fire fighters had more important work to do.”

I also heard a family member of one of the victims. Bud Welch lost his only child Julie, a charming and spunky 23 years old woman with a big heart. Bud told us, “Even though I was from a family which had always been against the death penalty, for first four weeks after the bombing, I wanted the men responsible to “fry.” Then I went on a downward spiral of more and more cigarettes and alcohol for many months.”

“I finally asked myself, “What do I want? A trial? Yes. A conviction? Yes. Death?”

“After thinking long and hard, I realized that my desire for the bombers’ deaths was fueled by thoughts of revenge and hate, exactly what had fueled the men who did the bombing. I chose NOT to join them.”

“I started campaigning against the death penalty. Note: I still wanted those men in a cage for the rest of their lives. But I no longer wanted them killed.”

“Then one night, while I was flipping TV channels, I heard, ‘After his commercial break, we’ll be interviewing the father of Timothy McVeigh, one of the Oklahoma City bombers.’ I wanted to change the channel, I really wanted to, but I didn’t. I watched father of the Timothy McVeigh give a very peculiar interview. He was weeding his garden and he never looked at the camera. Finally at the end, he did look at the camera, I saw a face I had seen in my mirror every morning, the face of a father in despair. I vowed to meet Mr. McVeigh one day and tell him that I did not hold him accountable in any way for the actions of his son.”

“I was able to keep that promise and together we worked as hard as we could to prevent the death of Timothy McVeigh. We failed but we tried together.”

“I wake up every day proud. Mr. McVeigh wakes up every day with a noose around his neck.”

After the event was over, I went back outside. I saw on the left, the large grass plot, with the 168 bronze chairs on it, most large but some small, and thought about the victims of the bombing and their families and friends.

On the right, I saw The Survivor Tree, gnarled and asymmetrical, but covered with green leaves, and thought about the 850 survivors of the bombing and their families and friends.

Behind The Survivor Tree I saw The Rescuers’ Orchard, and thought of the thousands of rescuers and volunteers.

I looked around the city, and thought of all the residents who had known a victim or a survivor.

Some people say there is a lot of evil in the world these days.

I remember what Mr. Rogers’s mother said – to look for the helpers.

In Oklahoma City, there were 10,000 official rescuers and volunteers.

There were also countless others who donated clothes or blood, who moped floors or mowed lawns, who put chocolate candies on the out-of-town rescuers’ pillows.

And there was at least one helper who had taken the shirt off his back to help a bleeding survivor.

Contact Kate

Kate Dudding, Storyteller


The Top Six Things I Learned by Listening to Others Review My Grant Proposals

Katie Knutson

Knutson-photoThe Minnesota State Arts Board and regional arts councils review their grant applications publicly. Anyone may sit and listen to the grants being reviewed, but may not speak. Every time I submit a grant application, I try to listen to it being reviewed (if possible). I have learned so much about the process by listening. If you are looking to design your own dream storytelling gigs and are ready to write grants to get them, these ideas might make your first grant more competitive.

  1. Do your homework. Read the grant and information about the funder very carefully. Do they fund the kind of work you want to do? If possible, read past successful grant applications and access any feedback available. What worked? What did not? Include research and quotes. If you have done this program, or a smaller pilot program, previously, it will give you credibility. Get quotes from others who have worked with you, and from experts in the field. In my arts education grants, I often quote Kendall Haven and others who describe the connection between storytelling and the brain.
  2. Spell out everything. Assume that the people who are reviewing your proposal are idiots. Seriously. It is the easiest way to avoid making assumptions. Clearly define your unique jargon. Words I often define include storytelling, teaching artist, and arts integration. Declare your specific, measurable results – something that you can quantify by the end of your project (e.g., An average of 200 people will come to each of five performances). Use words from the grant application appropriately. Try not to leave any questions in the minds of the funders.
  3. Sweat the small stuff. If they are asking for resumes, work samples, or letters of recommendation, those things matter. Don’t wait until the last minute to collect, edit, or format them. Work samples need to have artistic merit and a high production value, especially if you are applying to an arts organization. Consider hiring professionals for any audio or video production.
  4. Get help. Is there an organization that has an interest in the work you want to do? Are there other artists with whom you would like to work? Review panels like to see partnerships. In many cases, if you are applying as an individual artist, you will need to get a non-profit organization (called a fiscal sponsor or conduit organization) to handle the money. NSN offers this service through its Sponsored Member program.

Once the grant is written, ask colleagues and friends, those who do what you do and those who have no idea what you do, to proofread your grant proposal.

What questions do they still have? Which parts could be trimmed?

  1. Expect Disaster, and Plan Accordingly. If any part of your grant needs to be submitted on-line, assume that you will have Internet issues, the grantor’s website will go down, or that a major storm will knock out power on your block. Submit before the last minute.
  2. “If at first you don’t succeed…” Resubmit that proposal in the next grant cycle. If you are able to get feedback on your grant from reviewers you will know what changes to make. The biggest grant I have received was from a proposal that didn’t get submitted by the deadline the previous year.

What have you learned by writing or reviewing grants? Please share your tips, techniques, and questions here!

About Katie

Storyteller and teaching artist Katie Knutson has written, contributed to, and reviewed many grants. She has even received a few of them! This year, she is the Storyteller-in-Residence at Neill Elementary thanks to a highly competitive grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. More at

Contact Katie



The Magic of Making History

by Chris Sutton

suttonThe sesquicentennial (a word I love to say but cannot spell) has been an incredible, unmatched experience for me. The 150th anniversary of the American Civil War started in 2011 and ends this year, 2015. Hundreds and hundreds of reenactments, ceremonies and assemblies have taken place over the last four years to commemorate the bloodiest war in American history. More Americans gave their lives in this conflict than in all other wars combined. Reenactments, formal ceremonies, debates and even slave auctions, gave both spectators and those participating a chance to immerse themselves in this collection of historic moments. I was blessed to be a part of many programs during this time and I am eternally grateful to everyone I have met for making my life richer. I have studied the civil war for more than 20 years and in my travels of telling stories, I am fortunate enough to meet a collection of people from all walks of life. With each person that I meet who has a history to share,  I am intrigued and humbled by all of the things I don’t know about the civil war. There is such magic in the art of listening, (something I need to do more of ) and I have been privileged to meet strangers who transform into meaningful acquaintances and friends before my very eyes. I gravitate to telling many of my stories surrounding this era because of the substantially rich history it provides. As a storyteller and historian, my life has forever changed over the last four years and am ready for the next chapter in my life as a living history presenter, keeping these stories alive. I look forward to continuing to tell the stories that you won’t find in any history book, stories that make us think and stories that inspire us to make a difference.

About Chris

Chris Sutton is a talented public speaker, storyteller, actor, re-enactor, voice talent & living history performer. Chris has created educational programs for the Saint Louis Zoo, National Association of Interpretation, the National Park System, the Civil War Sesquicentennial Organization, Gateway Storytellers, MO-TEL Storytelling guild, & Riverwind Storytellers. He was exited to be chosen to represent his region at this year’s conference and you can watch him perform his first hand account of a Union Civil War officer at the Showcase on Saturday, August first. His living history programs have be described as “Intense & thought provoking!” Chris has an intriguing demeanor and a magnetic personality that is unmatched and once you see him perform, you will never forget him.

Contact Chris



Why question authority? Why not?

by Robin Bady

badyOnce upon a time, my love affair with the canons of world fairy and folk tales was easy. I simply told the stories -of faraway princesses, kings and magical creatures, of transformations, possibilities, journeys, struggles, hope, and courage – and found the magic and justice within.

But as the world around us changed, first abruptly then steadily – 9/11 and its aftermath, the growing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, the economic downturns and the serious job loss, the Occupy and the Black Lives Matter movements, the failure of governments to act for the good of their citizens, etc. – I was shaken out of the complacency into which I had fallen. I could not help but examine what I was doing and what I was saying.

Believing in the importance of the words and their symbolism, in a time of untrammeled greed could I honestly tell of kings and queens without flinching? Why did so many stories end with the young man or young woman marrying the ruler or ruler’s proffered child, and joining that higher status/class? And what about the people left behind? As for gender– what is the role of women in these tales and can I stand one more story of an abusive wife?

And last but not least: I am a stepmother – I know from experience there was a backstory that was not being considered!

I had to figure out – how do I find the wisdom in tales whose societal structures are anathema to my beliefs? Does my acceptance of these stories constitute approval of the class systems therein? Am I then projecting that approval to my audience?

Here’s what Carl Sandburg said about his fantastical Rootabaga Stories. From the Huff Post Books of Oct. 12, 2012:

Sandburg had read Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales and was familiar with the classic fables, but he had no interest in stuffing European tropes into an America mythology. “I wanted something more in the American lingo,” Sandburg told Karl Detzer in a profile. “I was tired of princes and princesses and I sought the American equivalent of elves and gnomes.”

Stories do not exist in a bubble. They are microcosms of the mores, sociology and belief systems of the period of their creation or their collection. Imbedded in the narratives are the status and power relationships normative at the time. The stratification was not just symbolic, but real. Kings were kings, with all the power inherent in the position Peasants were lowly. Animals were lower still. Society has always been stratified, and still is.

Since status and power relationships were at the heart of my problem, that was where I decided to start.

David Mamet always said, “Acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” What is the truthful relationship of pauper to king, of queen to Lord Mayor? And what, as storyteller/creator/artist/visionary do I owe to my listeners?

And that, dear friends, is the reason I created the” Ladder of Power”. It is a simple graphing tool to lay out the story in terms of status and power relationships – to embrace, not ignore, the realities of everyday life even in the most fantastical of stories. You can think of it as a diagram, but in ladder form.

Think of a ladder with multiple rungs. King on top. Queen below him. Prince below her (until he gets to be king and then he trumps his mom.) Princess below him. Then the lords and ladies in order of their title. Then commoners, in order of the status of their profession. And don’t forget – women are always below the men.

Does the LoP answer all my questions? Not fully. But it does provide an unvarnished look of at the status and power relationships in a story. It reveals the characters’ motivations and needs and makes them more real, more human, more necessary – in a time different than but not so different from my own.

Does this take the place of other strategies you use to dissect your stories? Does this negate symbology or Jung or Campbell or good and bad or…? Of course not! It is just one more tool you can choose to use when you work. Has it changed the way I tell stories? Of course, though not in the ways I expected.

Are you interested? So come take a look at The Ladder of Power workshop at the NSN Conference in Kansas City on Saturday morning, August 1st, at 9:00 am. Add your voice. Let’s talk. What do you think?

Thank you to: Black Dirt Storytellers of Florida NY, The Lehigh Valley Storytellers, The Princeton Storytellers, The Patchwork Guild

About Robin

Award winning storyteller Robin Bady performs and teaches throughout the United States and Europe in venues large and small. She partners with cartoonists, violinists and instrument builders and other storytellers. She is the producer of the BADYHouse Storytelling Concerts, a monthly series featuring four performers telling long stories in her living room in Brooklyn. Her obsessive passion,“as told to” ghost stories, is slowly morphing into a book. She is the recipient of the JJ Reneaux Emerging Artist Award and the Oracle Award for Leadership and Service for the MidAtlantic Region. / / 718.633.6651