Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Show, Don't Tell

C. Engdahl
The Big E of Big E Toys

A classic mantra for fiction writers is the adage “Show, don’t tell.” In storytelling this basically means a writer should write in a manner that allows a reader to experience the story through character actions, words, and thoughts rather than simply through the narrator’s exposition and summarization. By showing rather than telling, readers can discover for themselves the underlying meaning and depth of a narrative. And although it can take more effort and time, showing brings a story to life in a way that simply telling cannot.

The same mantra can be applied to marketing and product development. Whether we recognize it or not, we are all storytellers. We are trying to capture the hearts, minds, and bodies of our customers through engaging narratives. This might take the form of traditional messaging and advertising, or through product innovation that takes customers on some sort of new journey. As such, we should strive to show, not tell.

I was perusing my November 2009 issue of Wired magazine this past week in an effort to stay abreast of everything Wired magazine publisher Howard S. Mittman calls “new and innovative in the world.” In addition to reading the interesting articles and checking out the product reviews, I found myself looking fairly closely this month at the various product advertisements throughout the magazine. I do this from time to time. Superbowl ads only come around once a year, and sometimes I simply need a little fix of current messaging and branding tactics.

As I visually accumulated more and more ads from this month’s Wired, I began to notice something. Perhaps it was a new phenomenon. Perhaps not. I don’t remember seeing it before though in such abundance. It seems advertisers are increasingly using the word “innovation” or “innovative” in the text of their ads. From energy, to cars, to computers, to clothing. Anything can be innovative. And advertisers want us to know it.

By definition, the word innovative basically means “new and different.” I suspect many advertisers though are looking beyond this simple definition and are hoping to capitalize on other generally accepted associations of the word – cool, cutting-edge, quality, industry-leading, forward-thinking, etc. Innovative isn’t inherently good however. An innovative product or service could just as easily be untested, unreliable, or gimmicky rather than cool and cutting-edge.

I personally am most interested in whether something meets my needs, resolves a problem, or otherwise satisfies me in some way. I don’t really care whether you call the product innovative or not. And I certainly don’t want to be told that a product is innovative – at least not by the manufacturer or its advertising agency. The word innovative should be reserved for product reviews or informative stories by third party observers not intent on trumpeting their own horn.

I can appreciate the inherent difficulty and limitations that exist in print advertising. Not a lot of space. No moving parts. No sound. The challenge to select the perfect words and present the perfect image is great. I still want companies to at least make an attempt to show how and why a product is right for me though. I don’t want to be told it’s innovative. To do so seems a bit shallow, or even disingenuous, or at the very least lazy. “Innovative” has unfortunately become a catch-all word meant to represent all that is good. Forgive me though if I don’t take at face-value the words printed in an ad or included in a press release.

Maybe I’m wrong. But if you keep telling us and not showing us how new and different your products are, the word innovative will get tired, not wired, real fast.

1 comment:

C. Engdahl said...

Far fewer advertisements in the December 2009 issue of Wired magazine contain the word "innovation" or "innovative". In fact I only saw one company the was using these terms.

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