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What we mean when we say "Show the Thing"

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We love a good catchphrase at GDS (such as "Look Sideways" and "the unit of delivery is the team"). "Show the Thing" is one of the oldest ones.

It started out as a slide in a presentation. It became a poster, a sticker, then a cliché. But we still say it, and we still mean it.

"But what does it mean?" someone asked me recently. "What 'Thing' are you talking about?" It turns out that buzzwords can lose their meaning over time, because they lose context.

Many people who were in the audience for the presentation when "Show the Thing" was first (ahem) a Thing, have since left GDS. And many people who joined since then don't have that shared context and understanding. The meaning of "Show the Thing" has faded with time.

Show the Thing means avoiding waffle

Right from the start, the point of "Show the Thing" was to encourage people at GDS to talk about work in progress by actually showing the work in progress.

Rather than doing a presentation and just saying "We've built an alpha", people were encouraged to show the alpha itself. Either as a live demonstration (which can be nerve-shatteringly risky for the presenter), or simply some screenshots.

We still do this. When we're talking about services in our presentations, we show screenshots or pictures or video footage of the services. When we're talking about users, we show pictures of users (or user research). When we're talking about a team, we show pictures of the team.

Show the Thing makes us more open

Promising something concrete in the future, rather than showing work in progress, sets us up to fail. Particularly if user research suggests that the work moves in a new direction and we end up creating something very different.

Remember Design Principle number 10: make things open, it makes them better. Showing the Thing is a terrific way of being open. It helps you make a better Thing.

Show the Thing means avoiding ambiguity

It helps you make sure that everyone in your audience understands the same thing. If you use visual metaphors, there's a chance that not everyone will understand them in the same way.

An example: I once saw a presentation where the speaker was talking about freedom to use a particular software development method. They used a huge picture of a seagull flying over a cliff to illustrate this point. In the speaker's mind, the bird represented "freedom".

But the way the talk was structured and spoken aloud meant that the meaning of that slide was confusing. Some people in the audience – myself included – thought it was trying to make a point about speed of delivery. To those people, the bird represented "speed". The message of the talk was ambiguous, and not everyone left the room thinking the same thing.

It doesn't sound like a big deal, but it matters when your organisation is trying to deliver a consistent and clear message over time. The more often you use visual metaphors, the more chances there are for some of your audience to misunderstand what you're trying to say.

The simplest way to avoid that is to avoid the visual metaphors, and just Show the Thing.

When there's no Thing to Show

This is where it gets difficult.

Sometimes, you want to talk about something that isn't so tangible. Something that only exists as a concept or an idea. You might have to be more creative here, and think of a thing that’s closely related, or better still directly affected, by the intangible Thing you want to talk about. We’ve done that in things like the Putting data to good use film that we made for Sprint 16. It veers closer to visual metaphor, but we tried hard to make all the graphical elements in it directly relatable to the work being done. They show the things that are affected by data, and could be improved by putting it to good use.

Another example: I was asked about how to “Show the Thing” when the “Thing” was a database. My suggestion was to find the person in charge of the database, and take a photo of them. Then in the presentation, for the speaker to introduce that person: “This is so-and-so. She’s in charge of a huge database. Doing the work we’re proposing, in the way we’re suggested, would make so-and-so’s job so much easier.”

A third option is to re-interpret what the “Thing” could be: it doesn’t have to be a service or a web page or a product. It might be what your team has learned or discovered while doing the work. Maybe that’s the more important thing. So show that.

Sometimes the Thing points to other things

Another approach is to make an object that represents what you want to talk about, take a picture of it, and show that in your presentation.

Let’s say you’re discussing some research your team has done. There’s no point putting all the research on slides, because no one will be able to read it. But you could print it out, put it on the wall, and take a photo of it. Then, in your talk, use the photo to alert colleagues to the fact that there's something on the wall.

You could say out loud: "We've done some research and it's on the walls for you to read and comment on."

The point of that slide isn't to enable people to read the research, but to alert them to the fact that it exists. Then they can go and read it in their own time.

That’s why we encourage presenters to keep each slide brief: slides are not good places for detail. But they're very good places to advertise the fact that there is more detail somewhere else, so your audience can read it in their own time.

We think that Showing the Thing is as important as it was when we first started using the phrase. We just need to make sure that people still understand what it means.

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