Article Category: Speechwriting

The Ladder of Abstraction and the Public Speaker


The Ladder of AbstractionExperience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play.
— Immanuel Kant

There are many types of bad speakers, and this article is about two of them:

  1. Speakers who bury audiences in an avalanche of data without providing the significance.
  2. Speakers who discuss theories and ideals, completely detached from real-world practicalities.

Both of these speakers fail because they don’t understand the ladder of abstraction.

In this article, we define the ladder of abstraction, give several examples, and explore why it is important for all speakers. Then, we explore specific strategies that you can apply to improve the balance and understanding in your presentations.

What is the Ladder of Abstraction?

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

Consider a ladder like the one in the image accompanying this article. Just as the ladder rests on solid ground, the bottom of the ladder of abstraction represents concrete things:

  • peanut butter and jam sandwiches
  • your goldfish Harry
  • a 2011 Honda Civic painted “tango red pearl”
  • broken leg bones
  • velcro straps on winter jackets
  • fresh loaves of rye bread right out of the oven
  • kisses from your mother

Conversely, the top of the ladder of abstraction is for abstract ideas and concepts:

  • democracy
  • freedom
  • justice
  • wealth
  • truth

The middle rungs of the ladder store things which are not entirely concrete, and yet not entirely abstract:

  • livestock
  • educational institutions
  • classical music
  • organizational charts

Bessie the Cow and the Ladder of Abstraction

In Language in Action, S. I. 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
  • atoms and molecules forming Bessie (most concrete, bottom of the ladder)

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.

Examples of the Ladder of Abstraction

Examples of the ladder of abstraction are all around us, in our thoughts, and in our words.

Read each row of this table, comparing the examples to one another:

Most ConcreteIn the MiddleMost Abstract
peanut butter and jam sandwichsandwichnutrition
Lord of the Ringsfantasy genreliterature
Samsung Galaxy S2 phonesmartphoneweb device
Kate Torker, Detroit auto workerassembly line workeremployment
Milos Raonic, Canadian tennis startennis playersathletes
Manolo Blahnik blue jeweled pumpfootwearfashion
Mr. Misko’s 12th grade physics classhigh schooleducation
this article on Six Minutespublic speaking seminarcommunication
youcitizens of your town/citysociety

Why is the Ladder of Abstraction Vital for Speakers?

To be an effective speaker, you must climb up and down the ladder of abstraction.

Speaking at one level of abstraction — whether at the top or the bottom of the ladder — is known as “dead level abstracting“, and results in a very unbalanced argument. Consider 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.

To be an effective speaker, you must “climb up and down the ladder of abstraction” to borrow a phrase Roy Peter Clark uses in Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. 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

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. Here are 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

If your speeches tend to get lost in the details, climb up the ladder periodically. Here are a few strategies you can use to get there:

  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.

Put it into practice

All speakers have a bias toward the top or bottom end of the ladder. My bias is to think, write, and speak near the top of the ladder. I consciously work to climb down the ladder to solid ground.

What’s your bias? Think of the last speech or presentation you delivered.

  • How could you have improved by climbing down the ladder of abstraction?
  • How could you have improved by climbing up the ladder of abstraction?

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