For twenty-five years, I taught an all-day writing program to show lawyers how to win more cases. Much of what I taught applies to anyone who wants to persuade a teacher, a boss, a colleague, a client, or the board. The reader doesn't have to be a judge. Toward the end of the day, I would tell the lawyers, “I have not suggested you write down one thing I have said so far. But I am suggesting you write down this sentence. And I suggest you take this sentence back to your office, type it up, blow it up, bold it up, and print it in a nice font. Make a sign out of it. Laminate the sign. Punch two holes in the sign. Tie a string between the two holes. Hang it off the bookshelf in your office. And read it every day. Several times a day.”
They thought I was kidding, but I could not have been more serious. It is a point many managers, students, lawyers, educators, sales reps, accountants, engineers, appraisers, anyone who writes, don’t get. The sign read:
If you tell them, they will not believe you;
if you show them, they have no choice but to agree.
We often tell by allowing opinion to slip into our writing, as though offering incontrovertible facts for our reader to consider. For instance, small. Small by whose standards? Small compared to what? Or tall: Is 5' 1" tall? Not in the WNBA. But If we're talking about the point guard on the 4th grade girls' basketball team, that's huge. And how about:
This proposed plat is easily economically feasible.
I'm not going to show you why it's feasible, but trust me, it is. Or:
The plaintiff is clearly not entitled to preference given the total lack of justification for the delay.
Says who? I, the lawyer who represents the defendant? I expect someone, anyone to believe me? Don't waste the words. If we are to convince others, we must show rather than tell, because nobody cares what we think; they all want to know how we got there.
Let's take this a little deeper: When we “tell,” we give an opinion. Ours. Opinions mean nothing because they are relative; they are self-serving, conclusory statements, and conclusory words always have antonyms, which means they can be debated: We can argue “hot”; we cannot argue “118º.”
Unless you are writing a summary, do not include your opinions, even if your facts support those opinions. Give the boards, the bosses, the professors, the agencies, the clients, the judges, the facts that led you to your opinion; then let them draw their own conclusions. If you do that carefully, and you have something to say, your readers will come to you. That’s called persuasion.