The Retail Show
Hungering for feedback about my brilliant prose from someone other than my dog, I went online and found a writing group. We met at a dingy, fourth-floor apartment overlooking West 23rd Street, five strangers with fistfuls of sweaty pages and a catalogue of social anxieties. A twitchy copy editor from Queens who smelled like soup and whose name I am still not sure of (“My name’s Caroline, but call me Ronnie!”) demanded to read first.
It was right around the twelve-minute mark of Ronnie/Caroline’s story (I doubt that word has ever been used so loosely) that I realized two life-changing truths. The first: that it’s probably best to just not use Craigslist ever. And the second: “Show, don’t tell.”
Of course, “Show, don’t tell” is classic writer’s advice. But is was there, in that room where RC droned on, upstaged by a million dust motes floating in a sickly shaft of sunlight, that I truly understood.
Simply telling rather than showing can be deadly dull.
Writing teachers say that telling is abstract, passive and requires less involvement from the reader. It slows pacing and pulls the reader out of the story. Showing, on the other hand, is active and concrete; sense-stimulating demonstrations of activity that create mental images and bring a story to life.
Anton Chekhov showed it best. Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
Showing is interactive, and encourages the reader to participate in the experience by drawing her own conclusions. Much like retail signage and display.
Marketers talk a lot about the narrative. We even call ourselves storytellers (and rightly so). So the basic writing tenet of “Show, don’t tell” applies as we work to create meaningful, resonant in-store experiences.
Following are some “show” writing guidelines retail marketers can use to create signage and display that share a story and provoke participation.
Cause a scene. A display with a beginning, middle and end is most satisfying to the shopper. A story doesn’t have to be long; it does have to be complete in its showing.
Paint a landscape. Give the story a place to live, visually and emotionally. A sense of place provides shoppers with a connection point and is a powerful memory stimulator.
Take action. As a writer uses words to create a dynamic through-line in a story, retail marketers can use visual interpretations of action to infuse a display with a sense of movement. Make sure something is really happening – and showing – in that retail story.
Stir the Senses. Certain colors, shapes, styles and images stimulate the senses. Understand the emotion behind the retail story, and then create opportunities for the shopper to fully experience it.
Be specific. Details make a story accessible. Generalizations make for a limp narrative. Think of each specific detail as a potential connection point for the shopper.
Use a common language – uniquely. It doesn’t matter how great your story is if no one can understand it. Have a brand voice, but just speak clearly. Language – including visual language – must be accessible before it can be effective.
Create tension. Conflict is the driving force behind any good story. Tension – emotional or visual – pulls a shopper into the narrative by giving her something to care about and invest in. The game now has stakes.
Embrace a style. Brands have personalities. It’s critical that they tell their stories in a way that is congruent with their image and messaging. Be delightful. Be surprising. Be you.