The context of that advice, however, is mostly for writing evocative fiction or highly descriptive or sensory text.
Technical writers and instructors also follow the “show, don’t tell” advice because visual cues enhance learning.
Even in printed documentation, call out boxes, lines, graphics, graphs, and tables are all used to help convey information by the most easily digestible means possible.
Tables and Other Visuals
Tables are certainly an awesome way to break down complex data into visual sets, but they are the bane of a 508 compliance specialist’s existence. There’s just no quick or easy way to make assistive reading devices “translate” that visual information.
It takes a lot of creativity to translate all those awesome visual elements in documentation to:
- a verbal or textual representation of the visual, and
- text that actually makes sense when read aloud.
This is why I tell writers and anyone else involved with 508 compliance to “think audibly”.
You have to “tell” him audibly.
You have to use your spoken words to convey all the information.
THEN, you have to put those words into text for documentation.
There is a significant difference between the spoken word and the written word. The language and basic communication are the same, but the written word is still somewhat of a visual medium. We learn to read by recognizing shapes and combinations of letters. When we read, we’re absorbing symbols for the language and translating them in our heads based on all our previous knowledge and experience.
Think about how you read. You don’t identify individual letters. If you’re a fast reader, you may not even consciously identify all the individual words in a sentence. You grasp the concepts and move on.
Those visual shortcuts aren’t the same with audible communication. You have to think audibly. Most of your 508 efforts will be read aloud, so think in terms of audible communication. THEN, put those words on paper…or word processor.
Use All the Tools
That doesn’t mean that we won’t still use visual images and cues to enhance learning in written and multimedia materials. Of course, we will. We still have to communicate effectively and meet the objectives.
Though, for 508 purposes, it’s best to reformat tables into segmented textual lists – until technology adapts to visual cues and complex table functions.
However, we’re not going to stop using an effective tool. We just need to add a few tools to think ahead for 508 compliance. If you know that you need to make the material 508 compliant, I advise writers to “tell” more while they’re also “showing”.
Even the original advice to writers to “show, not tell” wasn’t meant literally. That advice refers to using evocative and descriptive text…not images and graphs. That advice doesn’t go away. Descriptive text is essential for communicating a full concept through text.
Maybe that’s a better way to think about it. Images, graphs, and tables should be supplemental…to support the text, but the text should be able (for the most part) to stand on its own as a full representation of the information or concept…even if some of the text is in an alt-tag.