Verbal Portrait No. 2

Showing and Telling

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Below is an excerpt from my first post, Verbal Portrait No. 1, that briefly explains verbal portraiture. I suggest you read the original post in full for proper context, however, I empathize with the there-aren’t-enough-hours-in-the-day crowd.

From vivid descriptions of my most minute observations, I attempted to create a coherent verbal ‘image.’ Like the pointillistic brushstrokes of Seurat, my words would obfuscate if read individually, but render clarity when taken as a whole. Hence, the idea of verbal portraiture was born.

A Verbal Portrait is a specific, hyper-detailed description of the reality an
individual sees in front of him/her.

Verbal Portrait of a Writer in a Bar

The midday light wove through the whirling, dust-filled air and glanced against the waxed wood. The man ran his hands over the uneven counter: a scarred battlefield, its foxholes carved by an artillery of restless glasses and its surface washed by stank overpours. He fingered every last pockmark and massaged the wood as though it were his partner. Though he had no partner but the bottle.

His eyes fell upon a denim-coated, scruffy type suckling from his beer bottle as he would a teat. Though blue-collar, that color indicated neither his political leanings nor his attitude towards everyday life. At least probably not right now. Such was the mental lacquer of alcohol. It pulled down shades to counteract reality’s bright lights, darkening the willful imperfections held in each one’s own heart.

With that he silently lauded himself, 

“What a description! What a marvelous description! Indeed you are a writer, fella!”

He then downed the sticky, frothy, non-refreshing drink they called beer in front of him. Indeed, he hoped that the sloshing liquid would ignite a chaotic maelstrom within him. A frenetic creativity that would help him unlock that universally-accessible language he could set down on paper. A language that would evoke tears, laughs, smiles, and hate.

But first, a second drink.


As I sit down to think, process, and work through these pieces, I am struck by how drastically different free prose and 9-to-5 corporatespeak (i.e. business writing) are. The cognitive load and way of thinking demanded by each stretch miles apart. One is not better than the other, they merely flex different intellectual muscles.

Free prose comes to life via deep cohesion, clever turns of phrases, and subtle probing, whereas corporatespeak works because of immediacy, directness, and speed. The very way that I wrote the halves of the previous sentence is a microcosm of these two styles. Silky versus staccato.

Both styles serve different purposes. Free prose evokes emotion and feeling as it depicts a person, a situation, a scenario, et cetera. Often, this is done for its own sake as the writing moves along to some vague destination. It is writing by the scenic route. Corporatespeak barrels straight along towards a predetermined solution or idea. The writing, by itself, is less important than its subservience to an unequivocal message. It is writing as the crow flies.

In my mind, they boil down to this oversimplified framework:

To write free prose: show, don’t tell.

To write corporatespeak: tell, don’t show.

Though terse, direct communication (i.e. telling) is nominally good for productivity and time saving (whether either is good as currently conceived is another question entirely), it inhibits deeper, second-order thinking. Telling masks cursory understanding and encourages sentences full of “leverage” and “synergy” instead of more nuanced expression. Telling crafts first-order, expedient solutions that beget second and third-order problems. It is a train traveling full speed towards a downed bridge just around the bend.

Showing demands much more of authors, thinkers, and decision makers. To show, one has to wrestle and grapple with concepts from a variety of angles to achieve deeper comprehension. Like a boxer, one has to dance around, light on one’s feet, to measure distance and speed; giving and taking jabs in order to deliver a final, devastating hook. By necessity, it is painful, tiresome, and labor-intensive. But, by taking this intellectual road less traveled, problems confronted in the here and now help avoid potholes that would derail a process, execution, or thought later on.

What would it look like if a bit more showing were done in emails, meetings, and whitepapers? Amazon’s six-pager policy initially comes to mind. It’s certainly worked for them.