The ladder of abstraction is one of the most useful communication concepts I know.
Introduced by the linguist Samuel Hayakawa in the 1940s, the ladder of abstraction has two ends: at the top end are abstract things; concepts like integrity, trust, freedom and sustainability. Such concepts can be noble and meaningful. But they are definitely abstract: you cannot touch them and they don’t paint pictures in your head.
At the bottom end of the ladder are concrete things, real-world things that you can draw a picture of. A single object can move down the ladder of abstraction – from a vehicle (at the top of the ladder) to a car (in the middle of the ladder) to a Volkswagen Golf (at the bottom of the ladder).
But the ladder of abstraction is not just about individual words. Nor is it a choice between two options. Good communication includes both ends of the ladder.
Take the concept of integrity. Most people will agree that integrity is important. But what does it really mean?
I could define it by saying “Integrity means doing the right thing at all times and in all circumstances.”
As far as definitions go, that’s straightforward. And it’s probably helpful. But it’s also abstract. Circumstances are abstract and Doing the right thing is pretty abstract too. You cannot touch or see that. I could keep talking about integrity in such a way and it’ll be informative. But at some point you’d want something concrete.
A person and a situation
So what if I gave you an example?
What if I told the story of my friend Thomas who promised to help me move houses but never showed up on the day even though he prides himself in keeping to his word. You’d have a person and a situation. You can picture that situation and it’s through things you can picture, imagine and experience, that the concept truly comes alive.
That is not to say that the concrete is more important than the concept. We need concepts. Where would be without trust, freedom and integrity? The fact that these concepts – high up in the air – are hard to grab, gives them an air of nobility and they appeal to our intellect. But while we are attracted to such noble heights, every now and then we need to feel the ground beneath our feet again. That’s the lesson from the ladder of abstraction: you need to move us up and down.