It can be difficult to hold people’s attention at the best of times in a world full of distractions. Start talking about something they know little or nothing about peppered with facts, data, and statistics or about something that has no obvious correlation and relevance to their lives and they’ll carry your well-intentioned messages with them like a lead balloon.
Enter the Ladder of Abstraction. Introduced to the world in 1939 by Samuel I. Hayakawa, the Ladder of Abstraction helps you balance words, hard facts and details with ‘bigger picture’ concepts.
A conversation or presentation that dwells on too many facts, or equally too many details, risks being either too vague or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, an overload of information. Either one results in a potentially confused and consequently disengaged audience. Essentially, both approaches do not provide the whole picture your audience needs to make an informed decision.
The Ladder of Abstraction encapsulates how people think, speak and write and can improve your communications. As you work your way up the ladder, each succeeding level becomes more abstract than the last with the top rung consisting of broad concepts. Rungs on the bottom offer more ‘real’ information.
Hayakawa’s example is an apt one for agvocates:
Communicating using the Ladder of Abstraction is most effective when you move up and down the ladder since audiences need both concrete information to make sense of abstract concepts as well as details to fill out the corners for a comprehensive and holistic understanding.
You’re in the middle of a conversation about Canadian agriculture at the grocery store or halfway through a presentation to a local community group and you notice the person to whom you’re speaking is starting to look around, fidget and glaze over.
You’re losing them. Time to do something – stat!
You need to quickly assess whether you’ve been providing too much detail (easy for you as an ag professional to understand since you’re immersed in the science and jargon of the industry every day) or if you’re being too abstract and vague.
As MindTools.com notes: “People who speak from the top of the Ladder tend to sound inspirational and visionary. While abstractions make language exciting, they can sound hollow and remote, so you need to bring your message back down to earth.”
They suggest you start by asking yourself ‘how’ questions (e.g.: how does this relate to you?) to help gauge whether or not this abstract idea compares to something your audience can identify with and understand.
For example, when speaking to mothers of young children high level, abstract concepts about food safety policies is not likely to attract and engage their attention. However, if you moved down the ladder slightly to include specific examples from your farm or by what percentage a certain safety measure has decreased food borne pathogens, they’ll snap back to attention since the information is now directly relevant to them.
Another way to move away from abstraction is to use vivid descriptors and/or visual aids like photos.
On the other hand, if you see a look of confusion or consternation on your audience’s faces you’re likely sharing too much detail.
If your audience is struggling to understand the relevancy of your facts and cold data, you need to move up the Ladder. You should now ask yourself ‘why’ questions (e.g.: why is this important) to help people connect the dots between the overarching concept and goals of your presentation.
To move up the Ladder try bringing in details that create ‘a-ha’ moments; in other words offer details that help your audience create links between the big picture and its relevance and importance. Charts and graphs are good visual aids in this case.
One caveat here: your audience might not understand how critical some of the details are if they are presented alone, so remember to discuss them in tandem with your broader big picture concepts to help them easily create links. (For better or worse, the devil is in the details!)
One last tip: wrap up key parts of your speech with summaries and conclusions drawn from the information you’ve just presented. This will help your audience connect the information they’ve received to the important values they hold, thereby doubling the impact of your presentation.