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What Mad Libs can teach us about showing rather than telling…

Last Updated:

May 1, 2024

Table of Contents

Welcome to Edition #50 of Did You Know? (DYK), the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold story of how someone (or something) became successful—and what you can do to follow in their footsteps.

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Did You Know? It takes two to ____ (action verb).

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? The fill-in-the-blank activity book Mad Libs was rejected by both publishers and gamemakers because no one understood the idea. Then, people saw a demo on TV and were instantly sold.

It’s 1953 in New York City. Leonard B. Stern, a screenwriter, was trying to think of the right word to use in his script for the TV show The Honeymooners. So, he turned to his good friend and frequent collaborator, Roger Price.

“I need an adjective that…” Stern started to say. “Clumsy and naked,” Price blurted out. 

Stern laughed and explained that The Honeymooners' character “Ralph Kramden now had a boss with a clumsy nose—or, if you will, a naked nose.” Price laughed in response and the two looked at each other, “confirming [they] were on to something.”

Five years later, in 1958, the pair overheard a conversation while dining out: “An actor and his agent were having coffee… the actor wanted to ‘ad-lib’ [improvise] an interview, and his agent thought it was a ‘mad’ thing to do.”

Stern and Price looked at each other—and a lightbulb went off. They found a name for their funny “fill in the blank” idea: Mad Libs. “Mad” stood for its comedic nature while “lib” stood for “ad-lib”, meaning something that is “spoken, composed, or performed without preparation.”

At once, the two went “running to a publisher” to turn Mad Libs into a book—a series of stories made up of “a blank left in a sentence to be filled with a designated part of speech for laughs.”

At first, Stern and Price thought their idea was simple. Then, reality hit.

When they went to a book publisher, the publisher turned them down because it thought that Mad Libs was really a game and that they should visit a game manufacturer. 

When they went to a game manufacturer, the game manufacturer turned them down as well because it thought that  Mad Libs was really a book and that they should visit a book publisher.

This cycle continued until Stern and Price, out of publishers and manufacturers to contact, decided to self-publish Mad Libs as a book. In less than a year, 14,000 copies of Mad Libs were delivered to Price’s living room. 3 months later, the fill-in-the-blank book entered bookstores.

People remained confused by what Mad Libs were—until Stern, then a writer for NBC’s The Steve Allen Show, pitched an idea to his team: What if the host could introduce guests on the show using Mad Libs chosen by the audience?

After a test run with comedian Bob Hope (whom audience members described as ‘scintillating’), the world finally understood what Mad Libs were. Mad Libs sold out in bookstores within the week and a pop culture staple was born. To manage the book’s overnight success, Stern and Price and a third friend, Larry Sloan, created their own publishing company.

Today, Mad Libs have sold more than 120 million copies and more than 335 million people have played them. Considered a “cultural touchstone”, Mad Libs has earned generic brand recognition—a phenomenon reserved for when “a brand [is] so famous and so ubiquitous that people associate that with the action.”

So, the next time you’re trying to explain a complicated idea to a client, stakeholder, or audience, remember Stern and Price—who took an idea people didn’t understand and made it understandable by showing rather than telling.

The original Mad Libs book (left) and one of its fill-in-the-blank stories (right) via MadLibs.com.

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? Showing is more effective than telling.

Have you ever had a great idea, only to have others look at you and say… “What??”

And, it probably was a great idea! That wasn’t the issue. The problem was that others couldn’t picture how your idea would actually work.

Want others to grasp your brilliance? Show them by filling in the following blanks:

(1) “I’m trying to sell the idea that ______.”

  • E.g., “I’m trying to sell the idea that I am a leader for my upcoming promotion.”

(2) “Instead of telling people ______, let’s show it by [telling the story of ______ / creating a prototype of ______ / sketching out ______].”

  • E.g., “Instead of telling people that I am a leader, let’s show it by telling the story of how I led our team to turn around this struggling business unit.” 

Just because people (now) understand your idea doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily agree, but at least you tried—and at least people are rejecting something they understand rather than rejecting something they don’t. 

I know it because I’ve experienced it: When preparing for my keynotes, I always tell the organizers about how I like to make my presentations as practical as possible. But none of it really makes sense until I know my Mad Libs style fill-in-the-blanks frameworks.

Hundreds of keynotes later, I realized that I was on to something: People love fill in the blanks! So, I distilled everything I know into 260+ flashcards for confident communication and career-building.

But, this concept was new to a lot of people. “How would they work?” People kept asking. That’s why I created a trailer for How to Say It (which you can watch here.) I was trying to show, not tell.

Show, don’t tell!


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