May 20, 2008

Avoiding the Abstract

Filed under: Uncategorized — jameslutes @ 1:45 pm

Why is it that people can remember obscure fairy tales from their childhoods, but have trouble remembering what they learned last month in their macro-economic textbook? According to behavioral researchers Chip and Dan Heath, it’s because some forms of communication lack the ability to “stick,” or to be retained. In an exploration of the retentive properties of communication, Chip and Dan co-authored the New York Times bestseller, “Made to Stick.”

In “Made to Stick,” the Heath brothers outline what they consider the six principles of “stickiness,” a term they use to describe messages that lend themselves to enhanced recollection. These six principles are simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotion, and story telling. Of these six principles, Chip and Dan assert that “concreteness” is the most important principle to developing a “sticky” message.

To explain concreteness conceptually, “Made to Stick” also explains its opposite, abstraction. According to the Heath brothers, abstraction can dilute messages by not providing people with syntax they can use to visualize or easily understand a message. For example, the book discusses the various ways in which an elementary school teacher can explain basic mathematics.

Attempting to explain the concepts of addition and subtraction in abstract terms is confusing. But if a teacher places three apples on her desk and asks, “How many apples will there be if I put two more on the table?” the concepts of addition and subtraction become much more understandable. By using tangible, concrete examples, mathematical concepts can be explained much easier. “Made to Stick” argues that this process of layering concrete examples with abstract information is essential to effective communication.

This is why you’d want to avoid phrases like Bud Light’s “superior drinkability,” and instead say “cold beer.” Of course, most of us don’t need a basic, concrete example to help us comprehend Bud Light’s message, but a person completely unfamiliar with Bud Light, or even with beer in general, would have a difficult time interpreting “superior drinkability.”

As communication professionals, it’s important to consider the disposition of our audience. We could be communicating a concept that is familiar to us, but completely foreign to someone else. In these instances, abstract language could lead to misunderstanding, or even total bewilderment.


1 Comment »

  1. James, I think that “cold beer” wins over “superior drinkability” in any case. My friend suggests “smooth beer.”

    Comment by tiffanyderville — May 20, 2008 @ 2:58 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: