When I was in Kindergarten, I loved Show & Tell.
It was a fun way to share the things I cared about with other people. 5-year-old me would stand there at the front of the class and just prattle on about hockey or cool adventure books or some other random nonsense.
And although I’m talking about things that happened more than 20 years ago, I can still vividly remember the bright interlocking mats that my classmates were sitting on and the feeling of pride I had in showcasing the things that mattered to me, and the class calendar that listed whose turn for Show & Tell came on which day.
Everyone got their turn eventually, with some kids talking about a book they got for their birthday that talked about the Loch Ness Monster, or the time they got to go to Disneyland.
The thing I loved about Show & Tell is that it was so cool to learn about other people – not just learn with them.
Now, earlier on this blog, I wrote about how to avoid offending people, and I talked about how everything I need to know to run a business, I learned in Kindergarten. And Show & Tell is just one more fantastic example of this.
See, when you do Show & Tell, you show, and then you tell. (Profound, I know. Did I just blow your mind?)
And later on in life, I would learn that this isn’t just a rule to follow during a children’s classroom exercise. It’s a critical tenet of good writing and good marketing.
Fast forward to my university creative writing class.
It was first year, and I was in a short story class. I’d written a short story that the class was critiquing, and as we sat around with our desks forming a wide rectangle that ran the length of the workshop room, the other students proceeded to give me feedback one by one.
“I don’t understand what this symbol is supposed to mean.”
“The main conflict comes way too late – you need to move it up.”
“This priest character needs a better flaw. You should make him an alcoholic.”
They proceeded to nitpick the voice, the plot, the setting, everything. It was one of the worst experiences of my life.
(If you’ve ever had your writing critiqued, you’ll know that when people totally tear your story apart, it’s as if someone is calling your child stupid & ugly.)
Now, it wasn’t ALL bad. There sere several class members who piped up to defend my work. They thought it was written with a compelling creative flair and that it had a powerful theme.
At one point, I had half the class telling me that I had to change the ending and the other half telling me to keep it the same.
But the one biggest flaw in my story that my classmates spotted – and all agreed on – was that I was doing way too much telling and not enough showing.
(And although that’s one of the most irritatingly pretentious things you can ever say to a writer, in this case, it was entirely true. Fiction has never been my forte.)
And the thing is, there are a lot of rules for good fiction writing that also apply to good business writing. “Show, don’t (just) tell” just happens to be one of them.
I added “just” to that statement because there are some times when you will want to tell instead of show. Because if you’re showing all the time, that leads to excessively long copy that nobody wants to read. You’re writing marketing assets, not a novel.
But one critical area where you absolutely need to show instead of tell? Is when you talk about your expertise.
Anyone can claim to be an expert. Anyone can say they know what they’re doing. Anyone can say they worked in their industry for 20 years, wrote a bestselling book, did work for a dozen leading companies, and/or has a secret map that leads to buried treasure.
(I have this one slam poem I perform, and in it, I claim to have invented the 1990s. But just because I said it, that doesn’t make it true – much as I wish it were.)
And in an age where the Internet has made it dead simple for absolutely anyone to start a business regardless of whether or not they’re qualified for the work they do, your credibility is more important now than ever before. It’s the foundation of a successful business. People need to trust that you know what you’re doing – otherwise they won’t look twice.
Here’s the thing: Talk is cheap. Anyone can talk big. If you want to stand out, you need to show that you’re more than just talk.
One of the easiest ways to do that is with social proof.
“What’s social proof, Mike?”
I’m glad you asked!
Social proof is a concept in advertising psychology that refers to things like testimonials, customer recommendations, expert endorsements, and reviews. Basically, social proof is when independent third parties say things about you, even when (and especially when) saying those things offers them no benefit.
This is an important topic because every single day, businesses live and die by social proof.
Parents will intuitively understand the immense power of social proof. If you’ve ever lectured your child on peer pressure, then you’ve gone up against the incredible might that social proof wields.
(I’ve got several different nicknames for social proof that I’ve derived from the various everyday instances in which we see it applied. You’ll encounter a few of those nicknames later on in this article. But right now, let’s say it’s also known as the “If so-and-so jumped off a bridge” effect.)
Social proof comes in two forms: Positive and negative. The difference is fairly obvious, but just to be entirely clear: Positive social proof is when people say good things about you, whereas negative social proof is when people say bad things about you.
Psychologists have done some interesting studies on both kinds of social proof. One study, by psychologists Robert Cialdini, Noah Goldstein, and Steve Martin (not the actor, sadly), looked at the effects of anti-theft signs in the Arizona Petrified Forest – signs that tried to discourage people from stealing petrified wood.
These researchers tested out 3 different signs – the original sign, a sign that used negative social proof, and a sign that didn’t use any kind of social proof at all.
The original sign read: “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.”
The negative social proof sign read: “Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest.”
The control sign read: “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest.”
The researchers also used a second control condition in which they didn’t put up any signs about stealing petrified wood.
The results were astounding. When the negative social proof signs were up, three times more people stole petrified wood.
How did the researchers explain this finding?
As it turns out, when you talk about people doing the wrong thing in your social proof, it implicitly validates “the wrong thing”. When you post a bunch of signs that say lots of people steal petrified wood, suddenly stealing petrified wood seems like it’s not such a terrible thing, because everybody does it.
There are lots of examples of social proof being used to boost sales or reinforce a certain behaviour.
One study took place in a hotel. In the control condition, you saw your standard hotel fare in the hotel room bathroom. But in the experimental condition, hotel guests came across an informational brochure in the bathroom that said, ‘75% of customers who stayed in this room reuse their towels.’
What do you think happened?
The hotel saw a 33% increase in the number of guests who used their towel more than once.
Another example: Restaurants who label a particular menu item as their “Most Popular Dish” actually see that specific item’s sales increase by up to 20%.
So what does all of this mean for business owners?
Quite simply, if you call attention to a specific behaviour, you increase the likelihood that other people will engage in that behaviour in the future. If you try to shame a certain behaviour by telling people that it’s popular, the only thing they hear is that the behaviour is popular – and therefore it must be acceptable. This is just one illustration of the “Monkey See, Monkey Do” Effect – which is the result of a really interesting set of brain structures called mirror neurons…but that’s another topic for another day.
“Monkey See, Monkey Do” is why your social proof campaigns need to be focused entirely on positive actions that you want your audience to take.
Whether that means having a plugin that shows how many Facebook followers you have, or using testimonials that talk about the fantastic results your clients have seen, showing your potential new clients and customers not just how you’ve helped other people before, but also how you can help them, is a critical piece of your marketing campaign.
See, when people can actually look at what other people are saying about you, suddenly it’s not just you talking anymore. It’s not just you saying things that may or may not be true.
Because at the end of the day, talk may be cheap…but using social proof shows people that you aren’t.