Ladder of Abstraction

… a core concept in Communication Skills and Atlas 109

LadderOfAbstractionConcept description

The ladder of abstraction is a concept created by American linguist S. I. Hayakawa in his 1939 book Language in Action to describe the way that humans think and communicate in varying degrees of abstraction.

Hayakawa described a progression of concepts applicable to a single cow named Bessie:

  • wealth (most abstract, top of the ladder)
  • assets
  • farm assets
  • livestock
  • cows
  • the cow named Bessie

In varying contexts, any of these concepts may be appropriate. Farm children most likely think in highly concrete terms, referring to the cow with the bell on her neck as Bessie. At feeding time, the farmer probably thinks in terms of cows and livestock. When selling the farm, Bessie and the other cows are thought of in terms of farm assets which ultimately equate to wealth.

Application to communication skills

Andrew Dlugan (reference below) advises that speaking at one level of abstraction – whether at the top or  the bottom of the ladder – results in a very unbalanced argument. Dlugan provides these examples:

Stuck at the bottom of the ladder (only concrete)

  • A project manager cites volumes of budget and effort data in exquisite precision, but fails to explain what it means.
  • An engineer delves deep into technical details, but neglects to highlight the significance of their analysis.

Stuck at the top of the ladder (only abstractions)

  • A politician proposes a series of generic legislative reforms, but fails to address how the legislation will directly impact citizens.
  • A university professor contrasts competing academic theories, but fails to ground any of them with practical real-life examples.

Dlugan quotes Roy Peter Clark, in Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, who says that to be an effective speaker, you must “climb up and down the ladder of abstraction”: audiences need both concrete details and abstract principles and lessons. To make a persuasive argument and establish a powerful rhythm, balance your speech between the two. Move up and down the ladder (and spend some time in the middle, if appropriate), making your message more understandable for the audience at many different levels.

How to climb down the ladder of abstraction

Dlugan advises that, if your speeches or presentations have too much theory and highly abstract concepts, you can achieve balance by injecting content at a low level of abstraction. He provides a few ways to do this:

  1. Embrace the phrase “For example…” .
    Provide real-world tangible examples for your theories and ideas.
  2. Use sensory language.
    Help your audience see, touch, hear, taste, and smell.
  3. Be specific.
    Provide ample details.
  4. Tell stories and anecdotes.
    Stories add emotion and realism to any theory.
  5. Cite data, statistics, and case studies.
    They offer support for your theories.
  6. Feature photographs and props.
    Remember that all words are a higher level of abstraction compared to the real thing. Use the real thing.
  7. Have a strong call-to-action.
    Show your audience how to put your message into practice.
  8. Answer “How?” questions.
    Questions like “How does this work?” force you to more concrete explanations.
How to climb up the ladder of abstraction

Dlugan advises that, if your speeches tend to get lost in the details, climb up the ladder periodically, with techniques such as:

  1. Answer “Why is this important?
    Give the deeper meaning behind the concrete facts and data.
  2. Provide the big picture.
    Explain the context and orient your audience.
  3. Reveal patterns and relationships.
    Help your audience see how the ideas connect — both to other ideas and their lives.
  4. Draw diagrams.
    Help your audience form mental models of processes, objects, etc.
  5. Use appropriate charts.
    Go beyond pure data to show trends.
  6. Reveal the lesson.
    Follow every story or case study with the key insights.
  7. Draw inferences.
    Apply sound logic to generalize from particular cases.
  8. Summarize into principles and guidelines.
    Help the audience learn from your experience by providing principles they can use.
  9. Appeal to shared ideals.
    Draw connections between your message and the ideals held by your audience, such as justice, truth, liberty, or freedom.
Putting it into practice

Dlugan says that all speakers have a bias toward the top or bottom end of the ladder, and suggests that all speakers should ask themselves “What’s my bias?” and thinking of the last speech or presentation delivered, ask.

  • How could it have been improved by climbing down the ladder of abstraction?
  • How could it have been improved by climbing up the ladder of abstraction?
Source

Drawn from Andrew Dlugan, 2013, The Ladder of Abstraction and the Public Speaker, at http://sixminutes.dlugan.com/ladder-abstraction/, accessed 27 January 2016.

Normed topic and synthetic course with which the concept is primarily associated

This concept is primarily associated with the core normed topic Speaking to Persuade and is included in the synthetic course outline Atlas109 Leadership and Communication Skills.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last updated on 30 January 2016.

Image: Slideshare.net at http://www.slideshare.net/neovita/ladder-of-abstraction, accessed 27 January 2016.