Where Are You On The Abstraction Ladder?

In his 1949 book Language in Thought and Action, linguist S.I. Hayakawa described what he called the “Abstraction Ladder.”

As he visualized it, the bottom rungs of the ladder contained the most concrete ideas or objects (he offered the example of a cow named Bessie), while the top rungs contained more abstract concepts (he used “livestock” and “farm asset” as more abstract descriptors of the cow).

Great presentations rarely remain at the top of the ladder for long. Concrete examples—which contain the vivid detail and emotional content that stick with audiences—are found toward the bottom rung. Indeed, a wide body of research suggests that concrete examples are generally most persuasive.

To illustrate the point, imagine hearing this opening statement during a presentation:

“In new home design and construction, human health and wellbeing is not currently enough of a consideration. I believe it should be.”

Now, pause for a moment and try to come up with a specific example of how new home design fails to factor in human wellbeing.

Hand hold house

If you’re an architect or homebuilder, perhaps you were able to think of one. But for most of us, conjuring up a precise example is difficult, because we lack sufficient knowledge in the topic.

The problem is that the four key words in that passage—design, construction, health, and wellbeing—are abstract. They’re theoretical ideas without a physical counterpart. While those concepts might trigger a specific thought for professionals who work in the industry, they’re too vague to trigger meaningful reactions from general audiences.

But watch how quickly things change when the same speaker follows those opening lines with a concrete example:

“Lighting has a major impact on your sleep and wakening cycle. That’s no surprise for those of you who sleep with blindfolds and black-out curtains, or who begin your mornings by pulling open the drapes to let the sun stream in. So wouldn’t it make sense for new homes to come with smart lighting fixtures that are programmed to match your body’s natural clock by gradually dimming an hour before your usual bedtime and gently brightening as you awake? Shouldn’t we design homes that are proven to help its occupants sleep better?”

You don’t have to be an expert to understand that example. Simply by climbing down the ladder, the presenter offered you something concrete to latch onto. If you were to repeat one of those two passages to a friend, I’m guessing it would be the second one, not the first.

Businesswoman standing on ladder
Still, abstract ideas do play a vital role in presentations. Abstractions (the first passage) help audiences grasp the big picture, while concrete examples (the second passage) illustrate and illuminate the big picture. It’s critical to strike a proper balance between the two.

Here’s the key: Don’t stand on the same rung for too long. Keep moving. If you’ve just made an abstract point toward the top of the ladder, zoom to the bottom by offering an example. If you’ve been spending time toward the bottom, place the example into a larger context by using phrases such as, “That’s important, because” or “Here’s why that matters” or “What that demonstrates is” or “What does that tell us?”

When giving examples, be sure to drop all the way to the bottom of the ladder. Too often, presenters think they’ve reached the bottom when, in reality, they’ve only dropped from the top to the middle. That “middle ladder” statement looks something like this:

“I’ll focus on three improvements today: Designing better home lighting systems, installing healthy air purification devices, and putting in anti-bacterial surfaces.”

That passage can serve as a helpful transition when sandwiched between the first and second ones—but it’s not detailed enough to stand on its own as a concrete example or effective memory hook.