Show Not Tell . . . .

scales law Communication & Law

I believe that one reason some lawyers and attorneys communicates so well is because of their “legal mind.”  Public Speaking takes the ability to “flow thought” in a cohesive and persuasive way.  A “legal” mindset understands that a person must be able to follow you and your thinking as you lay out the case in a courtroom.

In a recent article on the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, John Roberts, Ross Guberman highlights several of techniques which make Roberts an excellent communicator.

One of the several skills mentioned by Guberman is . . . .

Let your facts “show, not tell.”


Watch how Roberts explains the way the Red Dog Mine, the accused polluter in the case, got its name:

For generations, Inupiat Eskimos hunting and fishing in the DeLong Mountains in Northwest Alaska had been aware of orange and red-stained creekbeds in which fish could not survive. In the 1960s, a bush pilot and part-time prospector by the name of Bob Baker noticed striking discolorations in the hills and creek beds of a wide valley in the western DeLongs. Unable to land his plane on the rocky tundra to investigate, Baker alerted the U.S. Geological Survey. Exploration of the area eventually led to the discovery of a wealth of zinc and lead deposits. Although Baker died before the significance of his observations became known, his faithful traveling companion— an Irish Setter who often flew shotgun—was immortalized by a geologist who dubbed the creek Baker had spotted “Red Dog” Creek.

Guberman then asks, why would Chief Justice take so much time to explain the history of Red Dog Creek.  The answer is . . . .

Roberts is litigating a classic federalism fight between the states and the federal government. And who knows how a mine fits into [emphasis mine] the community better than the local and state officials close to the ground?

You’ll find the same technique elsewhere when Roberts “shows” you why the Red Dog Mine plays [emphasis mine] a vital economic role without “telling” you what to think by shoving that conclusion down your throat.


Likewise, that is a helpful way to see the inclusion of background content which is relevant to the understanding of a passage.  Rather than telling, one can show the listener the backstory of what is happening in the passage being preached or taught.


Let me illustrate that by contrasting the two approaches which Ross Guberman identifies:  Show — or — Tell

Passage:  II Samuel 11 — Nathan approaches David after his sin with Bathsheba



David is a shepherd and understands the investment which goes into a lamb or sheep.  He has counted them night after night.  Although his family was insignificant among Israel, he, as the youngest of seven sons has been in charge of hundreds of sheep which feed his family and servants.  Nathan is going to create a convicting parable about sheep and a lamb.  David well understands sheep and shepherding.  He knows lambs, the dangers they face, the problem of cattle thieves, the wealth contained in a flock, etc.



The very first time we hear about a man named David, he is identified as a keeper of sheep.

And Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all the young men here?” Then he said, “There remains yet the youngest, and there he is, keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him. For we will not sit down[fn] till he comes here.” – I Samuel 16:11


Again, David is mentioned when Saul is looking for a palace musician.  Saul told his servants . . . .

“Provide me now a man who can play well, and bring him to me.”


And it “just so happened” that one of the palace servants knew of a harpist named David.

“Then one of the servants answered and said, “Look, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, a mighty man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a handsome person; and the LORD is with him.”


Even though the servant highlighted four other qualities of David beyond his musical abilities, somewhere – somehow David is again identified as the family’s keeper of the sheep.

“Saul sent messengers to Jesse, and said, “Send me your son David, who is with the sheep.” – I Samuel 16:17-19


“who is with sheep” — Why not just say – Send me your son named David.  There was only one son who fit that simple description.  It was because that is where David spent his days and how we are to understand David.  He was not just a harpist – courageous – a good speaker – handsome – and blessed — but he was A SHEPHERD!


We are told again — we are reminded by God — that David is a shepherd in I Samuel 17 that David is a shepherd . . . .

“But David occasionally went and returned from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem.” – I Samuel 17:15


Again in I Samuel 17:20

“So David rose early in the morning, left the sheep with a keeper, and took the things and went as Jesse had commanded him.”


We are again reminded that David is a shepherd when mocked by his brother in I Samuel 17:28.

“with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness?”


David himself again mentions that he is a shepherd when he talks to Saul.

“But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep his father’s sheep, and when a lion or a bear came and took a lamb out of the flock,
I went out after it and struck it, and delivered the lamb from its mouth; and when it arose against me, I caught it by its beard, and struck and killed it.” — I Samuel 17:34-35



David was a shepherd!  David spent years . . . .

  • watching
  • leading
  • herding
  • counting
  • defending
  • mending
  • becoming attached to various lambs
  • slaughtering animals from the flock
  • seeing weaklings and little lambs attacked
  • leaving and then returning back to shepherding
  • and even mocked about being the “lowly” shepherd of the family

. . . . AND NOW God sends Nathan and Nathan constructs a “parable” by which to excite David’s passions — but really to confront and convict David about his sin.


It is no surprise that as Nathan muses – meditates – contemplates – creates scenarios by which he can speak to David – works through possible or useful analogies  — OR was just given the “single pet lamb” analogy by God’s moving . . . .


Whatever Nathan’s mental processes . . . . Nathan constructs an analogy which David would well understand and feel!



One can “tell” the audience that David is a shepherd, or one can “show” how much of a shepherd’s shepherd David was.

One can “tell” the audience that Nathan created a parable constructed from the world of shepherding, or one can “show” how that parable so fit David’s thinking and understanding of shepherding.

One can “show” David as a shepherd and find an audience convinced when asked — “Would you not agree, David was an undisputed, undeniable shepherd!

A shepherd at heart — so much a shepherd that David is still identified with shepherding* and the Messiah, who will come from the line of David is identified with that occupation.


Is it best to show and not tell?  That depends on . . . .

The Clock: How much the time do you have available since “showing” takes more time than telling.


The Cost-Benefit: What is the gain in showing versus telling?  Is there a greater impact (benefit) given the time (cost) taken to accomplish such?


Obviously, with the example I laid out above, using the account were Nathan confronts David with a parable about a stolen lamb, I think “showing it” drives the point better than “telling it.”

I think it turned out rather well! – ?

* David is connected over and over as a Shepherd!

Psa 23:1

A Psalm of David.
The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.

Ezek. 34:23

“I will establish one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them—My servant David. He shall feed them and be their shepherd.

Ezek. 37:24

David My servant shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd; they shall also walk in My judgments and observe My statutes, and do them.


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