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Demonstrate. Don’t Explain.

By Michael Neelsen

On January 24, 1978, Steven Spielberg was sitting in a writers’ room with George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan. They were hard at work structuring a story about a pseudo grave-robber in the 1930s who searches for the Lost Ark of the Covenant.

That story would eventually become the first Indiana Jones film.

At one point in the conversation, the three filmmakers were struggling to craft a simple communication of an important plot point. The point they had to get across to the audience was how multiple broken pieces of ancient metal Indy finds could fit together to form a staff.

“One of the things is to demonstrate, not talk about it,” Spielberg remarked.

What did he mean?

Well, one way to communicate a complex idea to an audience is to literally talk about it, or have a character explain the thing in explicit terms. But Spielberg is a brilliant visual storyteller, so he knows that cold exposition is never very engaging.

So he proposed an example of how they could communicate this idea.

“Like a beautiful vase on a table, that is worth a complete fortune, and they’re all looking at this, and a man carefully puts his glasses on, looks at the vase, takes a hammer and breaks the thing. He divides the pieces up to be shipped all over the world, and sold. ‘I hate doing this. I hate destroying great art, but it’s a living.’ Bam. Crash. You realize this is what happens to all great works of art to make more money for the greedy bastards. And the audience realizes that is why the staff is in several pieces.”

Audiences will always respond better to demonstrations of your idea as opposed to explanations of your idea.

So, how does this figure into brand storytelling?

We encounter this all the time at StoryFirst Media. In an interview for a brand in the sales industry, the interview subject will complement his colleague with the following line:

“She’s great. If someone asks her a question and she doesn’t know the answer, she’ll find the answer.”

That’s all well and good as a complement, but it’s incredibly boring for an audience who very likely does not personally know the “great” colleague in question.

Instead of talking about the colleague in a positive way, what if the interview subject had given a positive demonstration of her efforts? What if he’d told a story?

“I remember this one time my colleague we presented with a very challenging question that she did not have an answer for. This question came from a client that needed an answer by the end of the day, and my colleague’s calendar was booked for the rest of the afternoon. By five o’clock, she had managed to clear her schedule just enough to find some extra time to investigate the issue and get the client what they needed on time. Also, the meetings she had to reschedule to make time ended up working better for those other clients than the originally scheduled time, so everyone was happy.”

While this is a vague hypothetical, you get the point. A story like this presents the audience with the dilemma the colleague was facing and forces them to acknowledge the professional manner with which she navigated her way through it.

Your audience will thank you for allowing them to make up their own damn minds about what your point is, and if you tell the story right, they will commit your message to memory far more frequently than a cold statement.

Don’t talk about things. Demonstrate them.