Screenwriting and Leadership: show not tell


The first rule of modern screenwriting is “Show not tell.”

It used to be that a playwright who wanted to give an audience background information about a character they would set up a ‘table polishing’ scene. The maid and the housekeeper, for example, would start to polish a table together. Then the housekeeper would say something like, “You’re new here, Mabel. So let me tell you about the background and personality of Mr Smith …”

But this doesn’t work. It doesn’t engage people. It’s boring. They forget.

The modern way to let people know that Mr Smith is a nice guy, in a way that they remember, is to show him helping an old lady across the road. Or if you want them to know that he is a bully or wanted by the police then you show him kicking a defenceless animal or crossing the street to avoid a cop. Then later, when he turns up at the birthday party with a large knife, the audience already knows whether he is going to cut up the cake or do something worse.

Showing not telling is what works with human beings.

As a leader, your job is to create an inspiring story and to get results. Your audience is your extended team. And when an unexpected scene arises, you need them to know how to react.

But if you tell them what you want them to do they will forget.

If you show them then they will remember.

And if you show them enough different scenes, then they will begin to understand the ‘story’, or narrative if you prefer. And then they will become involved.

If you want your people to be more proactive, to say “We did it ourselves“, don’t tell them what you want, show them.

Chapters 6 and 7 of inner leadership describe how to show your audience what you need them to know.

  • One way is to create an inspiring vision, using language your audience cares about to describe specifics about the future and the actions you need them to take.(Chapter 6)
  • Another is that as you work towards you vision start to live your values and purpose immediately (Chapter 7). This brings part of the vision alive immediately, and makes the rest easier to achieve.

If you wish, you can also take these to a deeper level:

  • Create a full vision that not only paints a picture but also tells a story: describe where you are, why you need to change, where you need to get to, why this matters, how you’re going to get there, and what it will be like when you do. This will engage people more, just as watching an entire movie engages people more than watching a single scene.
  • The more people are aware of their own story, their own purpose and values, the more they will realise that in building that vision they are also building themselves. The more passionately they will then want to engage in building your vision.

The ultimate purpose of ‘show not tell’ is to engage people in a journey of becoming. This is what inner leadership is ultimately about.

This is true in the movies. And it is also true in real life: yours and your team’s.

Photo By Michael Gil via

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