Ask, Show or Tell

Andy Walker
6 min readNov 3, 2022

A simple hierarchy for influencing people

Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

Thoughout our personal and professional lives we communicate to influence people of a particular view point or course of action. The trouble is we’re not very good at it. It kind of isn’t our fault because we grow up being exposed to the least effective form of influence — being told what to do. This typically comes in the form of “don’t do that” or “do that”. Children absorb everything they’re exposed to and then repeat those behaviours so it’s no wonder that we grow up thinking that the way to get people to do things is to tell them. Telling is the least effective way of getting your viewpoint across. There’s little scope for engagement and we’re likely to run into reactance bias where people reject choices that have been made for them.

Later, if we’re lucky a manager or mentor or friend may take us aside and give us the timeless advice “show don’t tell”. To which we typically reply — “what do you mean?”. And this leads to one of the conversations which makes us so much more effective as people. Our guide explains that it’s not enough to tell someone that something is broken or is good we need to show it to them. We’ve just told them the work we’ve done is really good and they ask “how is it good?”. At this point we struggle a bit and maybe answer with “it’s really well thought out and works really well”. “Not good enough” is the reply — how would someone that is not you know that these things are true?

This is our first step into becoming more effective at communicating. The dawning realisation that not everybody shares the same subjective interpretation as we do. We start to re-examine our use of language and the language of everyone around us. The first thing that needs to go is our use of adjectives and adverbs. We throw them in to emphasise what we’re saying without realising that that actually subtract meaning from our communication.

Consider the following phrases:

  • Jenny did brilliantly to deliver this project which has revolutionised the way we do sales.
  • Johnny implemented the solution really badly.

How could anyone as an objective observer make a judgement as to whether either of these phrases are true? In effect I’m asking the listener to trust my judgement without giving them means to…

Andy Walker

Interested in solving complex problems without complexity and self sustaining self improving organisations.