Find an example to illustrate your point
The other day, I was working with communicators at a financial services organization on their content marketing pieces. For a story on the organization’s financial camps for kids, they’d written:
Pretty abstract; pretty dull. I encouraged them to find a concrete detail to liven things up.
What have your kids done when they were bored? I asked. And from the back of the room, one of the communicators yelled out:
“They painted the schnauzer.”
Oh, I think we have a lead, I said. What color did they paint him? The communicator answered:
“They used Pepto-Bismol.”
Oh, I KNOW we have a lead.
“Paint the schnauzer” is my new mantra for finding examples that prove the point.
That’s important. Because everything we know about how people respond to information tells us that they’re more likely to pay attention to, understand, remember and act on concrete messages — painted schnauzers — than abstract ones, like keeping the kids out of trouble.
Wait: What’s concrete?
So what’s the difference between abstract and concrete?
Stephen Sondheim, the great Broadway composer, once said:
“If you tell me to write a love song tonight, I’d have a lot of trouble. But if you tell me to write a love song about a girl with a red dress who goes into a bar and is on her fifth martini and is falling off her chair, that’s a lot easier.”
Love is abstract. The woman in the red dress is concrete.
We know the woman in the red dress concrete, because we can absorb her through our five senses. We can see her red dress. We smell the gin on her breath. When she falls off her chair and bumps into us, we can feel her.
That’s the test for concreteness: Can we absorb it through one or more of our five senses?
So illustrate your big ideas with real, tangible things that appeal to the senses. Things like:
- Facts, juicy details
- Concrete words
- Examples, for instances
- Stories, scenarios and case studies
As poet William Carlos Williams said:
“No ideas but in things.”
It’s the difference between showing and telling.
Show and tell.
“Show, don’t tell,” counseled Mark Twain, American author and wit.
But a better bet may be to show and tell, to move from the top to the bottom of the ladder of abstraction.
The ladder of abstraction is a model created by scholar, senator and semanticist S.I. Hayakawa.
At the top of the ladder is the most abstract concept: the devastating problem of feline illiteracy, maybe. At the bottom is the most concrete example of that problem: say, my 13-pound Chartreaux cat, Gigi, who has not only taught herself to read and write but now mentors less fortunate mewlings.
- Love lives on the top rung of the ladder; the woman in the red dress on the bottom.
- Wealth is at the top of the ladder. At the bottom of the ladder is a tangible illustration of that big idea: Bessie the cow. (Unless you’re a biologist, you can avoid that very bottom rung: Bessie’s DNA.)
- Keeping the kids out of trouble over summer break sits at the top; the Pepto Bismol-slathered schnauzer is at the bottom.
The top of the ladder is essential: There lies meaning. The bottom of the ladder is essential, too: There lies interest and understanding.
Want to communicate better? Spend your time at the top and bottom of Hayakawa’s ladder.
Show and tell.
Beware the middle.
“Show and tell. Move up and down the ladder of abstraction,” writes Roy Peter Clark, Poynter Institute senior scholar:
“At the bottom are bloody knives and rosary beads, wedding rings and baseball cards. At the top are ‘meaning’ words like ‘freedom’ and ‘literacy.’ Beware of the middle, where bureaucracy and public policy live. There teachers are referred to as ‘instructional units.’”
So don’t get stranded halfway up.
“Whatever you do, don’t get stuck on the boring middle rungs of the abstraction ladder,” counsels Jack Hart, author of A Writer’s Coach:
“Every day, writers churn out millions of words that describe mind-numbing bureaucratic processes without mention of individual human beings or larger meaning. They are stuck somewhere between heaven and earth, and their readers never get to sample the joys of either.”
How do you avoid the middle rungs to spend your time at the top at the bottom of the ladder? Ask these two questions, Clark suggests:
“Can you give me an example?”
“What does it mean?”
How do you scale the abstraction ladder in your writing?
What questions do you have about the ladder of abstraction?