Show, Don’t Tell

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This is one of those articles inspired by doing something new outside of bidding and enjoying the close parallels.

My something new has been to write a crime fiction novel over the past year in the extra time I’ve had due to being indoors more during the pandemic. I thought about it well before I ever heard of Covid-19, so I decided it was right to seize the opportunity.

I’ve found it to be a truly fun part of my adjustment to the new way of living. It’s been such an exciting experience to apply the elements of storytelling – character points of view, emotional impact, scene entry and exit hooks, character goals, and plenty more. They obviously don’t apply in those forms to bidding, but I think there’s an overall principle that does apply.

By applying the elements of storytelling in fiction, we’re able to describe events, actions and thoughts in ways that help the reader to feel the scenes. I use ‘feel’ to mean any of the five senses, all encapsulated in the guiding expression, “Show, don’t tell.”

Take Fred, for instance: “Fred was nervous when he entered the woods.”

That statement provides no sense of Fred’s actual experience in the moment because we’ve been told, not shown. The reader’s left unengaged with the words because they don’t provide anything relatable beyond a generic understanding of the word ‘nervous’. The problem with the lack of ‘showing’ in fiction is that it erodes emotional connection, which means, bit by bit, the reader loses interest and eventually stops reading.

It’s easy to fall into the same trap of bland statements in bidding, using up character, word and page count without leaving the reader engaged with the message. That happens when we tell instead of show.

Imagine Jenny is proposed as the traffic manager in a civil engineering contractor’s bid to Highways England for a road construction project over a mainline railway near the village of Dibley. Imagine also that she’s worked previously with the very stakeholders who don’t want to be unduly affected by the construction.

“Traffic Manager Jenny Jones brings her extensive experience of traffic management liaison.”

Some explanatory text would presumably follow such a statement, and we can’t say the reader will stop reading there and then, but it’s much better to make the sentence work harder on its own by showing something relevant about Jenny’s experience. When ‘empty sentences’, as I call them, are dotted throughout a proposal, they create ‘reader drag’, also merely my own term, which is bad news.

We might instead envisage something along the lines of:

“Traffic Manager Jenny Jones’ 25-year track record of leading traffic management on the strategic road network includes exceeding interfacing stakeholders’ requirements, e.g. KPIs set by the Dibley Village Roads Community Group and Network Rail.”

[Take it as read that the term KPI was defined earlier in the proposal.]

Again, explanatory messaging would be needed, e.g. the past projects and dates, the types of KPI to which Jenny had to work, how much shorter a time period and road length of traffic management (cones, barriers, etc) she required compared with the KPIs. The sentence isn’t trying to give the reader everything they need to know, but three relevant things about Jenny have already been shown:

  • She’s led traffic management for 25 years, so she’s no newbie to the discipline
  • She’s done so on the strategic road network (A roads and motorways) which is Highways England’s primary interest
  • She knows what it’s like to interface with the very stakeholders who will matter in that location

We’re focusing on maximising the likelihood of engaging the reader by showing why Jenny’s the person for the job, not just telling that she’s really good. After all, the last thing we want to hear from a client who needs a new road near Dibley is, “No, no, no.”

So this is really about the well-tested principle of showing the benefits, not just the features; to show why it’s worth reading more – or, as fiction authors say, to maintain tension.

Another example: imagine multiple construction sites run as individual projects within one overall regional scheme for which global coordination and local management are essential.

“We understand the importance of overall scheme-wide co-ordination of individual sites.”

That’s a sentence any bidder could write even without any understanding, so it doesn’t provide anything useful and it certainly doesn’t differentiate the bidder. The follow-up messaging would presumably provide the detail but, again, it’s better to make every sentence work harder by showing instead of just telling, maybe something like:

“[Client]’s first point of global co-ordination will be our programme director supported by the steering group leads – commercial; quality; environmental; health, safety and wellbeing – who will work with their site-based counterparts to enable the leads’ knowledge sharing (e.g. lessons learned) between sites for continuous improvement.”

The reader knows who the first point of contact will be, which functions will support that person, the mechanism (steering group) by which scheme co-ordination will happen, and an example of a benefit of knowledge sharing. The way continuous improvement happens might be explained next. Again, the showing doesn’t provide the whole proposal or the whole solution but does provide enough to show there’s a point and that something relevant is coming up.

“I find keeping “Show, don’t tell” in mind helps as a constant reminder to write things that are relevant and important for the reader.”

It’s like an aide memoire, if you will, to avoid the temptation to reveal that “Our management system is aligned to [client]’s requirements” or “Our approach is geared to exceeding [client]’s requirements without showing what makes those claims true.”

This article was written by Holger Garden.

Holger is a bid manager and writer, and a personal / team performance coach. He spends most of his time supporting construction clients bidding for civil infrastructure and building projects, but his transferable skills have led to his work in the medical, charity and security arenas also. He works with businesses of all sizes to help them win more work.

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