The ladder of abstraction was created by American linguist S.I. Hayakawa in his book Language in Thought and Action. The ladder of abstraction is a mental model that describes varying levels of abstraction and concreteness as one moves up or down a hypothetical ladder.
Understanding the ladder of abstraction
In the book, Hayakawa describes the way that people think or communicate in varying degrees of abstraction. Intangible abstract concepts occupy the top rung of a hypothetical ladder, while tangible concrete particulars occupy the bottom rung. In the middle rungs exist forms of communication with characteristics of each.
The Linnaean system of classification is one example. The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) occupies the bottom rung of the ladder as a concrete, tangible species of animal. The top rung is occupied by the abstract, intangible Kingdom Animalia. Middle rungs are occupied by the remaining hierarchical taxa, including genus, family, order, class, and phylum. As one moves up the ladder, there is a decreasing level of concreteness and an increasing level of abstractness.
Implications for effective communication
Attaining the right level of abstraction is essential to establishing context and becoming an effective communicator.
Audiences need both concrete details and abstract concepts, so communicators should spend time on the middle rungs for balance and rhythm. In general, however, the communicator should never linger in one place for too long.
Lingering at either extreme of the ladder is called dead-level abstracting and commonly occurs in one of two scenarios:
- Stuck at the bottom of the ladder (concrete-centric) – where a project manager presents detailed and specific budget data without explaining its broader implications.
- Stuck at the top of the ladder (abstract-centric) – where a politician proposes generic legislative reform without clarifying how the reform will affect ordinary citizens.
Moving along the ladder of abstraction
In the previous section, we established that effective communication relied on freedom of movement along the ladder.
Here is how that might be accomplished.
To move down the ladder:
- Support theories or abstractions with tangible, real-world case studies, photographs, or data.
- Use sensory language that the other party can taste, smell, hear, touch, or see.
- Tell stories or anecdotes with emotion or some other form of human connection.
Conversely, to move up the ladder:
- Explain patterns or relationships. How do certain ideas connect in a broader context? For less certain relationships, it is appropriate to make inferences through logical reasoning.
- Show trends through appropriate chart usage instead of focusing on small subsets of data.
- Sympathize with shared ideals or values such as justice, freedom, environmentalism, and transparency. Here, it is helpful to know the audience and what resonates with them most.
- The ladder of abstraction describes the varying levels of abstraction and concreteness present in communication.
- In a conversation, free movement on the ladder of abstraction is important in establishing appropriate context. A lack of context results when the communicator lingers on subjects or concepts at either end. That is, the communication is either too abstract or too concrete.
- Moving down the ladder of abstraction is as simple as supporting abstract concepts with relatable case studies or data. Communicating broader trends or relationships and understanding the audience’s values help an individual move up the ladder.
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