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Show, Don’t Tell – The Professor v. The Candidates

I had a chance to catch up on some reading over the holidays and one thing I had set aside was an article in the New York Times about Professor Walter H.G. Lewin, a physics professor at MIT who has become known for his lively and engaging lectures. Professor Lewin is quite the performer, apparently, rigging cans of water to demonstrate how to make a simple battery, beating a student with cat fur to build up a static electricity charge powerful enough for the student to light a neon light tube just by touching it, and swinging on stage to demonstrate the physics of a pendulum. (You can check out his lectures, available for free at You can also find a few clips on YouTube.)

As with all great teachers, Professor Lewin knows the best way to engage students is to show them how complex concepts work, not just tell them. This requires some planning including building demos, acquiring props and preparing remarks. Professor Lewin is a spry 71 and owns the stage he occupies. He looks like he’s really enjoying himself and his students are rapt. Lewin says it takes him about 25 hours to prepare one lecture. Assuming the lecture is about an hour and a half or less, that’s about a 20:1 ratio, which is about right. Professor Lewin is the epitome of “show, don’t tell.”

“Show, don’t tell” is a tried and true communication tool that helps audiences and listeners more easily grasp what a person is saying. It engages the senses, encouraging learning. It can be exemplified by doing demonstrations, as professor Lewin does, by creating exercises whereby stakeholders learn by doing, by telling stories and giving examples, using props that people can touch and feel. “Show, don’t tell” makes concepts come alive.

With the Iowa Caucuses occurring today (and, blessedly, finishing), it is remarkable to watch the candidates who tend to “tell, not show” and, thus, present a striking contrast to Professor Lewin. Almost all of them stand on a platform, microphone in hand and tell about what they would do if elected. Sometimes they move. Now you could ask how can they show? After all, the issues they’re talking about by their very nature are esoteric and difficult to demonstrate. I say that’s all the more reason to find a way to show, instead of just tell.

For example, a candidate who wants to be seen as “regular folks” needs to dress and act like regular folks. Mitt Romney finally took off his suit and tie, but he still doesn’t fit in, what with his starched and pressed khakis, button-down oxford shirt and sweater. Barack looks completely non-Iowa in his suit-with-no-tie and Hillary Clinton needs a new stylist in the worst way. I’m not saying they should dress in overalls and work boots, but if they want people to relate to them more readily, they need to show, not just tell.

They all do try to show their values by getting their families involved. This can be both a blessing and a curse. For example, Rudolph Giuliani has issues in that department, so if he wants to be seen as a “family values” type of person, he’s limited in whom he can trot out. He tried having his current wife, Judi, call him during a speech to the NRA, but that was a staged, phony and ultimately failed attempt to show instead of tell. Bill Clinton has been stumping for his wife, but he can only do that so much before it starts to have diminishing returns. Bill may be a rock star, but it’s Hillary who wants to be president. One thing no one can do is “show” for someone else.

And speaking of Hillary, if she wants to show her softer side by enlisting her daughter and her mother, she ought to do something other than have them stand idly by as she “tells” about what they mean to her. A hug or a gentle touch would speak volumes about their relationships with each other and work wonders for her campaign.

In today’s busy workplace, with so many distractions, we are challenged to engage others quickly and creatively. We only need ask ourselves, as the candidates should be, do we want to win? If the answer is yes, “show, don’t tell” is the way to go.

It’s one of my New Year’s resolutions.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Sherman.  All Rights Reserved.

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