Show, don’t tell — keep us interested

By · Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

not teaching,
still THINKING …

Comedians might “tell” jokes, but they do so with such a “show” of explicit details and colorful anecdotes that listeners can visualize what they are hearing. And that is how comedians get their laughs.

Journalists, too, use the same approach. They include anecdotes, examples and details in their storytelling because these are the elements that keep readers interested. These elements also keep a story from becoming just a recitation of statements and quotes.

Here’s a quick example of how easily it can be done.

Consider this story about a college student who came upon a quacking mother duck who was upset because her ducklings had fallen through a sewer grate. Firefighters used two “massive” crowbars to pry off the grate, but the firefighters were “too big” to fit down the opening. The student volunteered to go down, and he rescued all nine ducklings.

It’s a cute story. It could be even better.

The answers to these questions would elicit even more colorful detail to an already good story.

This example brings up another important point about the all-important anecdotes, examples and details. They naturally come out when a reporter does three key things:

Anecdotes are short stories that help readers to visualize information.

Examples and details add information, description and support; they answer questions that readers raise as they are reading.

Storytellers were using these colorful essentials to bring vivid images to their work long before this became such a visual world. Now it’s your turn to keep us interested.

(These two profs are no longer teaching at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, but we are still thinking.)


“Examples, details and anecdotes” — that has become my mantra to students ever since I first heard those words uttered by professor Davis. In addition to making a story far more compelling, the quest for examples, details and anecdotes can also help you understand whether your sources are telling the truth or engaging in hyperbole. For instance, if someone accuses someone else of inappropriate conduct, it is only with details — what specifically was said? who else was in the room? where and when specifically did this occur — that we can collect information that we can then verify or debunk.