A Smart Lesson from a Dead Company

Show Don't TellThey say dead men tell no tales. But dead companies do. And not all those tales are cautionary.

At first glance, you might not think much of the old Montgomery Ward headquarters building in Chicago. But its design holds a powerful lesson. And not just for architects — for anybody.

Why are the corners blocked with massive concrete slabs? Legend has it that the design is an articulation of Ward’s egalitarian culture — no corner offices for anybody.

As often happens, the real story departs a bit from legend. Apparently the corner bracing makes interior columns unnecessary, freeing up much-needed space inside. (Preventing jockeying for corner offices happened to be a nice side benefit.)

But the legend lives on and is repeated often in architectural tours of the city. Probably because it makes a nice story. I don’t know just how collegial the Montgomery Ward culture actually was, but the building stands as a powerful demonstration of “show/don’t tell.” It’s design says more, and says it more credibly, than words alone can do. It’s action, speaking loudly.

Now not everyone can make their point by constructing a 28-story office tower. But you can start replacing mere claims with more action-oriented language. Here are some of the most tired claims businesses frequently trot out and how they can be made more evocative. Which is better?

  • We’re responsive OR We return every call within an hour?
  • We’re dependable OR We’ve never missed a ship date?
  • We’re collegial OR We get our own coffee?
  • We’re service-oriented OR We come to you?
  • We support work/life balance OR We push you out the door at 5?
  • We’re results-oriented OR We don’t get paid until the deal is done?

Show/don’t tell is absolutely one of my favorite lessons from the book. That’s why I come back to it again and again and again. It’s more persuasive, more credible, more clever, and it has the added benefit of not insulting your audience’s intelligence.