# 187: Show and Tell — and Not Vice Versa
Story behind the Passage
Language is such a difficult thing. That is why I wish that we would all be using children’s books for communication. Well, or at least, some methods of child pedagogy. I have at least one of these situations per day when words are simply not enough. You cannot describe a story to someone, let alone the actual act of writing. How the hell do I know how exactly writing works? It is not some technique, I could never give some A, B, C instructions to someone on how to write a book. Yes, there might be some best practices but to be honest, I never looked at these. Actually, I hardly ever look at how people do stuff — at least, in the case of stuff that I somehow know how to do. I do my thing. Only when I am stuck, I might look for some solutions.
This brings me to the “Show and Tell” issue. It is so true — no language, no description, no meta-story can replace the showing. The problem is that, at least in most “academic” circles, we are used to doing things the opposite way. We talk a lot about theory and general things and then show some example — if we do so at all. The funny or rather the tragic thing is that, apart from writing, I do that myself. I used to give talks all the time where I indulged in theoretical elaborations. I did it when teaching too. Now, I might be a little more skilled but there is another thing that I need to share: for me, as a listener/student, I love listening to the boring stuff — at least content-wise. I am not talking about “boring” in the sense of listening a monotonous, not so energetic, voice. I mean, we are all humans and we have learning preferences. But in general, as far as the format is concerned, I love listening to a lecture a lot more than doing many group activities and listening to stories. I love writing stories but if I want to learn something new, I want the hardcore stuff. I know this might sound arrogant but somehow it is true. It is like soccer. I love playing soccer but I hardly ever watch it.
All these language troubles made this term “show and tell” come up today. I had no idea that it originated in children’s pedagogy. But it makes so much sense. Actually, most things that children do and the way they learn makes so much sense. And then the school system and the work world trains it out of us. I wrote about this before in the context of Ken Robinson’s book (# 13: Seeing the Element — Inside | by Silke Schmidt | Medium). I am also thinking abut children’s books so much because I have this children’s books writing phase now. There are so many things so critical but also important that I tend to write stoies about them in which I take the perspective of a child trying to understand these things. In fact, if we are really honest, we should all take the perspective of children a lot more often. Every time we encounter a completely new phenomenon or thing, we are learners, like a blank page, the tabula rasa. But we have also learned to shut our mouth and not reveal how little we know. This is sad. We miss so much.
“Although it continues to offer an opportunity for young children to develop their language skills, within today’s busy classrooms, this activity is often limited to a brief viewing of a selected treasure.” Wow, wow, wow! You wonder why this is so “wow” to me? Just replace the word “classroom” here with “offices” or “universities.” Do you see what I mean? Yes, what I am saying is that we should all “develop our language skills” more in order to become better communicators — in all our social and professional spheres. We have somehow tacitly accepted that fact that the world is getting more diverse and supposedly more complex but at the same time, we shut up. Instead of asking more questions, we become more quiet and simply let things happen. At least, this is what I am observing in many places. You bring a speaker to a group of students and then you ask them to ask questions — blank!
Of course, there are many reasons why students remain mute. Maybe the talk was not interesting or they simply have no questions. Whatever, I just wanted to mention this as an example that you can witness quite often. I try to avoid this “we need” and “we should” but I really think that curiosity is something that we need to revive again. Humans are curious by nature but socialization makes this disappear, at least publicly. This is why the “showing” has so much potential. People are confronted with something they just have to look at or read. In other words, when I show a story to someone and after reading a few lines, this person laughs or cries — then there is not much more to tell. No words can do this. The story does it itself. No words about the story could have had the same effect — never.
So, what I am saying is, I kind of need to go back to my previous way of doing things. I mean, not entirely but partly. What I mean is that I always followed the strategy: Get the task, forget about all the words that follow and do not try to explain everything, just get the thing done and show it to the person. That saves a lot of time and the other person goes: wow! The problem is, sometimes that is a bit too fast. Since I tend to take three steps at once, people get lost in-between. That is a dilemma that made me start telling more instead of just showing things very quickly. I am sure, there is some middle path which I am almost walking right now.
The most interesting thing about this entire passage above is that “show and tell” triggers natural curiosity in those seeing the object and the immediate process of then translating the object into words. In other words: You go from example to explanation, from the specific to the meta-level. This is such a philosophical move and, as we know, the most intuitive way of learning for human beings. This connection between showing and telling, between seeing and asking, is so great. Why do we not start using this principle for conferences and other professional events? Show what you have and then talk about it if we decide we want to hear more. Obviously, this would be very discriminatory and, as we also know, especially in non-scholarly circles, there is much abuse of this strategy, especially if you think of some pseudo-marketing events. People show a lot and then talk a lot but the content is just hot air. So, your eyes can also take you to the wrong path.
For my communication path, I am still quite impressed by the beautiful depth hidden behind the simple “show and tell” concept. And I will use it more, a lot more. There is no way around it. I think, people who are creative, especially artists, their art is the best way of expressing themselves. “Words” cannot do the same thing. Even for a writer whose raw material are words. But writing stories and novels is different than talking about all this in some other paper or even verbally. Even though this makes daily life a bit frustrating at time because people simply do not understand what you are telling them — what you mean — and what you are about to do. But as long as you end up doing it anyways — make sure to show and tell.
1) Do you ever use the principle of “show and tell”? To what effect?
2) What can we learn from children that would help us transform our work world?
3) How did you learn foreign languages? Did “show and tell” play any role?