Tap the 1:1 concrete-comprehension ratio
Two professors from Texas A&M University and one from the University of the Andes aimed to find out whether concrete or abstract information was more understandable, memorable and interesting.
First, the professors crafted a series of passages. Each passage was 56 words long and written at about the same level of readability.
Half of the passages were abstract:
The other half were concrete:
Then the researchers asked 40 graduate students to read the passages and rate them for how interesting and easy to understand they were.
The students rated the concrete copy more interesting and understandable.
1. Concrete stories, headlines are easier to understand.
In fact, there was almost a one-to-one correlation between how concrete a passage was and how easy it was to understand, the researchers said (Sadoski, Goetz and Rodriguez, 2000).
Next, the researchers wrote a series of abstract and concrete headlines for each of the 56-word passages. They included:
|Abstract headline||Concrete headline|
|Domestic Devices||Countertop Gadgets|
|Preferred Items||Favorite Junk|
|The Laws of Lift||How a Plane Flies|
|A Science Find||Jungles in Ice|
|Mortal Justice||Death Penalty|
Then they asked the graduate students to rate the headlines for how interesting and easy to understand they were.
The students rated the concrete headlines much more understandable and interesting (Sadoski, Goetz and Rodriguez, 2000).
“Using more concrete language and content should,” the researchers write, “have positive effects in making … text more comprehensible, interesting and memorable.”
2. Interesting messages boost learning.
We’ve known this for years.
In the early 19th century, German philosopher Johann Friedrich Herbart said that interest leads to understanding, learning and memory — and even inspires readers to learn more.
For some 200 years, researchers, philosophers and communicators have found Herbart’s link between interest and learning to be true.
One of those researchers is Suzanne Hidi, associate member at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education’s Centre for Applied Cognitive Science. In “Interest and Its Contribution as a Mental Resource for Learning,” she reviews the research connecting interest with learning.
What’s interesting? “Interesting copy,” Hidi found, is:
- Concrete. It shows instead of tells, turns ideas into things and is filled with action and images.
- Emotional. It includes human interest, narrative action and “life themes” readers can identify with.
- Novel. It’s surprising or unexpected.
Here, for instance, are some of the concrete, interesting sentences that researchers have studied:
- The huge gorilla smashed the bus with its fist. (Anderson, 1982)
- When a Click Beetle is on its back, it flips itself into the air and lands right side up while it makes a clicking noise. (Garner et al., 1989)
- When a fly moves its wings about 200 times in a second, you hear a buzzing sound. (Garner et al., 1989)
- The Battle of Trafalgar was the greatest naval victory in British history, and it was the war for Great Britain. (Wade & Adams, 1990)
- [Lady Emma Hamilton] fell in love with the battered, one-eyed, one-armed naval hero and became his mistress. (Wade & Adams, 1990)
Concrete, colorful copy, according to Hidi’s review of the literature:
- Encourages reading (Hidi & Baird, 1986).
- Improves comprehension (Hidi & Baird, 1986; Bernstein, 1955).
- Boosts learning (Hidi & Baird, 1986; Shirey and Reynolds, 1988).
- Increases recall (Hidi & Baird, 1988).
- Helps people come up with bigger, better, more creative ideas (Bernstein, 1955).
Nearly 45 years of research proves it: Concrete details help readers “get” your message; abstract concepts aren’t so helpful.
For instance, the entire incoming first-year class of a college participated in a study where researchers rewrote passages from American history textbooks to make them more concrete. Students understood the revised, concrete passages much better than the original ones. They also rated the revised passages significantly more interesting (Wharton, 1980).
In another study, students understood and remembered concrete words (PDF) like aisle, ceremony, scene and pile better than abstract ones, like pride, theory, time and truth (Sadoski, Goetz, Stricker and Burdenski, 2003).
3. Word pictures boost understanding by 43%.
That’s because abstract words are hard for your audience members to understand and remember.
But use concrete, visual words, and people understand 43% more, according to a study by Prabu David and Jagdeep Kang.
For the study, researchers used an infographic and accompanying text from a USA Today article about the effects of nicotine on the body. They tested abstract copy and concrete copy, both with and without the accompanying infographic.
|What the study tested|
|Abstract (low-imagery) copy||The filters in the bronchi, called cilia, are immediately affected and are unable to filter out harmful particles. Tar collects in bronchi, greatly increasing lung cancer risk. Buildup in air sacks reduces lung efficiency and causes disease.|
|Concrete (high-imagery) copy||The tiny hairs called cilia, (which) act as filters in bronchi, are immediately burned or coated with excess mucus and are unable to filter out harmful particles. Tar collects in bronchi, greatly increasing lung cancer risk. Corrosive buildup in air sacks reduces lung efficiency and causes disease.|
|Accompany-ing visual||A diagram of cilia, bronchial tube and an air sack dotted with tar particles.|
The results: Word pictures increased understanding dramatically.
Why? Because concrete copy — word pictures — paint pictures in your readers’ minds. (Think of the word pictures you hear on National Public Radio or read in The Wall Street Journal.)
Those mental images serve as surrogates for real pictures, the researchers hypothesize. And real pictures have been shown, in study after study, to make information easier to understand.
Learn why word pictures work.
Help readers see with concrete information.
That’s no surprise. After all, we say “I see” to mean “I understand.”
So help them see.
“Cecil, the black-maned lion” is easy to see. “Leveraging our industry-leading synergies”? Not so easy.
Turn ideas into things: Make your message more vivid and visual with concrete information, and people will literally see what you mean.
Are you turning ideas into things? Or are you hoping to gain understanding with abstractions?
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, pp. 85-95
Sources: Suzanne Hidi, “Interest and Its Contribution as a Mental Resource for Learning,” Review of Educational Research, Winter 1990, Vol. 60, No. 4, pp. 549-571
Prabu David and Jagdeep Kang, “Pictures, High-Imagery News Language and News Recall,” Newspaper Research Journal, Summer 1998