Communicating Values: Show, don’t Tell

A common marketing exercise tells us to list all the adjectives we want customers to associate with our company or product. The result often looks like this (real slide, source withheld to protect the guilty):

Already I’m cringing at the size and scope of the list, but the real problem comes when the marketing department plays Mad Libs:

Sun GlassFish™ Enterprise Server is easy to use, fast, and scalable … easy to download, develop, and deploy … facilitating robust, highly-available, and cost-effective services. (source)

The product description above is prima facie false. In all your experience with computers and software, have you ever experienced a system that truly embodied every one of those attributes? No trade-offs, no compromise? A-plus-plus on every count?

Of course not. Since I don’t know which of these claims are true, now I distrust them all. And you haven’t communicated anything tangible. Fail.

The cardinal rule of authenticity and believability is that actions speak louder than words. A corollary is that if you have to tell me something’s true, I automatically don’t believe you. If you’re honest, you don’t walk around saying “Hey, did you know I’m honest?

Your “values” aren’t words to be shoe-horned into tag-lines or stapled onto disingenuous mission statements. Values are the reason for your actions, the theme behind your words, and the underlying consistency in how you do business.

Hollywood actors call this “motivation.” A character’s motivation is the secret reason why she is angry or depressed or indifferent. A common technique is to invent a back-story — construct a detailed account of how the character has gotten to this point in life.

You don’t publish the back-story. You don’t come out and say “Darth Vader is disillusioned with the notion of a Republic.” Explanation ruins everything!

Apple has mastered the art of demonstrating values without words. Apple has values like “design is paramount,” “form over function,” and even “Apple is cool.” But an iPod wouldn’t be cool if some corporation claimed it was. Listing features/benefits wouldn’t communicate that either.

This does: (Yeah this clip is dated, but remember how amazing it was?)

How would “standard” marketing machinery portray these “features and benefits?”

This rule of values — show, don’t tell — doesn’t just apply to commercials. It’s in customer service, your website, how you sell, and even how you hire.

Actions count; words don’t.

Explaining your values comes off as disingenuous:

  • If you have a high-quality product, you don’t say “Your satisfaction is important to us,” you have a 90-day no-questions-asked return policy.
  • If you care about talking to customers, you don’t play a recorded message saying their call is important to you, you simply answer the phone.
  • If customers love you, you don’t say “100 companies use our software,” you have a web page with 100 stellar testimonials.
  • If you treat your employees as human beings, you don’t call them “resources,” you mock companies that do that and display testimonials from your own employees.

Once you’re walking the walk, then you’ve earned the right to call it out:

  • “We’re so confident in the quality of our hammer, if ever breaks we’ll swap it out with a brand-new replacement. For free!”
  • “At MyCo, a human being always answers the phone. Why? Because business is personal.”
  • “Don’t take our word for it, read for yourself what our customers say. Did we pick the best ones? Well yeah, but we have 100 ‘best ones!’”
  • “What if programmers were treated like rock stars? … management, not coding, is the support function. … people love working here.” (from Fog Creek)

The “values” here are still words like “quality,” “service,” “happy customers,” and “great place to work,” but they’re tangible demonstrations, not trite phrases plastered in all the expected places.

Let values motivate action. Values are the means to the end. Get to the end.

What are your techniques for exhibiting positive values without announcing them? Leave a comment and join the conversation.

5 responses to “Communicating Values: Show, don’t Tell”

  1. Jason, care to talk to the VP of my department? :)

    That’s why big corporations have giant marketing budgets, the ads are ineffective because they tell instead of show.

    An awesome book, "Tuned In," talks about the concept of a resonator… you don’t hafta sell it because it already resonates with people. Kinda like Apple vs Microsoft.

  2. This is such a good article, you make the point clearly and concisely. I was sent scurrying back to the website I am presently developing, to check that I was being clear and honest myself.

    My own "techniques for exhibiting positive values without announcing them" are limited to including press reviews and audience comments, I am also a great believer that the work should speak for itself, which is pretty hard when the specific work (i.e. new productions with new production company) hasn’t actually happened yet. So I have to trust that my former work, with former companies, speaks for me now.

    This website is still in development, as I’m researching the whole crowdfunding thing before I launch. This throws up a whole new can of worms in the online marketing scenario.

    Your thoughts?


  3. @Flloyd — Press reactions are good, external reenforcement. Nothing wrong with that. Personally I’m more convinced by the "audience responses" you have on other pages because I know it’s always possible to find quotes from trade rags. (e.g. Even bad movies can find "rave reviews" in the press.)

    On your pages about specific shows, could you display some clips or at least some stills? Surely text alone doesn’t convey what a picture or clip can convey of a film.

    Said another way, if you want $1 contributions (which is a great idea!), you have to at least give me a taste!

    Another idea: For "The Fall of June Bloom" can you reprint a small excerpt of a beautiful passage from the play? Even 200 words would give me a better idea of what you’re going for than a lot of the abstract description you give here. For example, instead of saying "engaging with processes of memory and language across generations and cultures," could you find a short passage from the play that demonstrates it and moves me?

    (Yes I realize you’re raising money and the films don’t yet exist, but could you show clips from previous work or photos of storyboards for example? Make this tangible that you’re really going to do this and it’s going to be great.)

  4. Great post. I problem most marketing departments have is that they are just not that creative. They will take a well thought out strategy and fall back on the tried and tired product claim bs. Marketing was, for too long, just about telling customers what you do. These days a good Marketing strategy is built into every aspect of your business. Traditional Marketers don’t get this, guys that start software companies do :)

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