Concrete material easier to understand
“If you really want to shake people out of their reverie and motivate them to sit up and take notice, say those two simple words, for example.”
— Sam Horn, author of POP! Stand Out In Any Crowd
Since the 1960s, studies have shown that concrete copy — copy that shows instead of tells, that describes objects instead of ideas — is easier to understand:
- Third-, fourth- and fifth-graders understood the plot and theme of a story better if the words painted a mental picture of a key event in the story. (Sadoski 1983, 1985).
- Undergraduates understood history textbook passages better when the copy was more concrete and full of images. They also found concrete passages much more interesting. (Wharton).
- Abstract language is more vague, and that makes it harder to understand and remember, researchers have found. (B.J. O’Neill and Allan Paivo).
So how can you make your abstract ideas concrete?
Turn your ideas into things. Illustrate your messages with tangible examples your readers can absorb through their five senses.
Help readers ‘see’ your message
|High performance||A V8 engine|
|World-class customer service||A [Nordstrom salesperson] ironing a customer’s shirt|
|100 – 70 = 30||You had 100 yen, then you bought a notebook for 70 yen. How much money do you still have?|
|Source: Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Made to Stick|
What real-life, down-to-earth people, places and things illustrate your key ideas?
Source: Mark Sadoski, Ernest T. Goetz and Maximo Rodriguez, “Engaging Texts: Effects of Concreteness on Comprehensibility, Interest, and Recall in Four Text Types,” Journal of Educational Psychology 92 (2000): 85-95
Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Random House, 2007
B.J. O’Neill and Allan Paivo, “Semantic constraints in encoding judgments and free recall of concrete and abstract sentences, Canadian Journal of Psychology, 32, 1978, pp. 3-18
Mark Sadoski, “An exploratory study of the relationships between reported imagery and the comprehension and recall of a story,” Reading Research Quarterly, 19, 1983, 110-123
Mark Sadoski, “The natural use of imagery in story comprehension and recall: Replication and extension,” Reading Research Quarterly, 20, 1985, 685-667
W.P. Wharton, “High imagery and the readability of college history texts,” Journal of Mental Imagery, 4, 1980, pp. 129-147