The Ladder of Abstraction
Balancing Hard Facts With Visionary Ideas
Have you ever felt your eyes close halfway through a presentation or, try as you might, been unable to finish reading a team member's report? Maybe you've been the person presenting, wishing the ground would swallow you up as your carefully prepared speech "goes down like a lead balloon."
It can be difficult to hold an audience's attention for the duration of a speech, a report, or even just a conversation, especially in a busy workplace. This is where a tool like the Ladder of Abstraction can help, by allowing you to balance your words so that they engage your audience.
In this article, we examine the Ladder of Abstraction, and show how you can use it to strengthen your writing, speaking and even your thinking skills.
About the Model
Linguist Samuel I. Hayakawa first popularized the Ladder of Abstraction in his 1939 book, "Language in Action." It remains a useful model for describing how people think, speak and write on different levels, and it is a handy tool for better communication.
The Ladder rests on solid foundations – just as a real ladder should do. Language at this level is specific, detailed and tangible. For example, you might talk about something concrete, such as your pen, a particular armchair that you like to sit in, or your pet dog.
As you climb each rung of the Ladder, you ascend through increasing levels of abstraction toward broad concepts and meaning. When you reach the top, you'll be considering notions such as power, life and aesthetics. These are different from the bottom end of the Ladder, where things are "real" in the physical sense.
Between the two ends of the Ladder, language is less "real" than at the bottom, but not as abstract as at the top. This middle area is where you might hear about writing rather than a pen, or relaxation rather than an armchair.
Essentially, communication is most effective when you move up and down the Ladder, weaving hard facts and details with "bigger picture" concepts and visions.
Here is an example of a statement that uses the full span of the Ladder: "Usain Bolt has achieved greatness through dedication and hard work on the running track." The notion of "greatness" is at the top of the ladder, "dedication and hard work" are in the middle, and "the running track" is on the bottom rung.
Don't fall into the trap of believing that your way of thinking is better just because it sits higher up the Ladder, or that you should avoid the lower rungs. Each rung represents a different level of communication, and each has its uses.
Figure 1: The Ladder of Abstraction
Working from the bottom up:
- The Process Cow. The atoms, molecules and so on that the animal is made of.
- The Cow We Perceive. Not the word "cow," but the object that we see. We're already overlooking some detail, such as what she is actually made of.
- Bessie. The name we give to the perceived object. When we do this, we leave out more characteristics such as her color.
- Cow. When referring to Bessie as a cow, we use abstract characteristics that are common to all cows – not specifically to Bessie.
- Livestock. At this level of abstraction, we use the characteristics that Bessie shares with other farmyard animals to group her as livestock.
- Farm Asset. When we refer to Bessie as a farm asset, we look only at those characteristics that she shares with other valuable objects on the farm.
- Asset. The word "asset" takes Bessie from the farmyard context to a higher, wider level of abstraction where she is just one type of valuable resource. Few specific details about Bessie remain at this level of abstraction.
- Wealth. The highest level of abstraction, from which we learn almost nothing about Bessie.
Do not confuse the Ladder of Inference, also called the Process of Abstraction, with the Ladder of Abstraction. The two models are very different. The Ladder of Abstraction describes levels of thinking and language, while the Ladder of Inference is concerned with reasoning and making assumptions.
How It Works
You can use the Ladder of Abstraction as a tool for improving your communication, whether you're planning a speech, writing a press release, talking with a colleague, or just thinking about something.
Audiences need concrete information to make sense of abstract concepts. Consider, for example, the inspirational leader who focuses on the "big picture" when announcing a new direction for his or her organization, but fails to support his vision with concrete methods for getting there. He leaves people wondering what they are going to do.
Audiences also need to know what the details mean. For example, a manager might present reams of data to her bosses, but not explain its implications or importance.
The problem in both scenarios is that the person talking is communicating from just one rung of the ladder, rather than alternating between the real and the abstract. He's being either too vague or too detailed to engage his audience, and is delivering only part of what its members need to know. This is called "dead level abstracting." The Ladder of Abstraction helps you to avoid this by engaging people in a full and balanced way.
The Ladder of Abstraction can be useful in other ways, too – for example, when you need to think critically or use creative problem solving. Moving up and down the ladder encourages you to consider problems at different levels. It can help you to broaden your thinking and make room for new perspectives, or to limit them and narrow your focus.
Applying the Ladder
If you're in the planning stages, think ahead and consider what your audience will need you to deliver. Write lists of "bottom rung" and "top rung" topics, and plan how you will move between them.
If you're midway through writing a report, or even halfway through delivering a speech, and you sense that you're losing your audience, stop to consider whether it needs more detail or more abstraction.
Writing and speaking to an audience works best when you climb up and down the Ladder. Try to move between the concrete and the abstract within each paragraph, or even within sentences when appropriate.
When you go to the middle rungs of the Ladder, don't linger there. If you communicate for too long at this level, you won't be giving your audience members enough detail to understand the essentials, or sufficient abstraction to grasp your higher meaning.
Descending the Ladder
People who speak from the top of the Ladder tend to sound inspirational and visionary. But, while abstractions make language exciting, they can sound hollow or remote, so you need to bring your message back "down to earth."
The first step is to ask, "How?" Questions such as, "How is this going to happen?" and, "How does this relate to you?" will help you to compare your abstract ideals and values with everyday things that your audience can identify with and understand.
Here are some other ways to move down the Ladder:
- Use vivid descriptions to help people grasp the basics. Tell them what your subject looks and sounds like, what it does well, what could go wrong. Use visual aids such as drawings and photos.
- Discuss examples, case studies and anecdotes to enliven discussions.
- Support your abstractions with specific data and statistics.
Climbing the Ladder
If you find that your audience is losing interest or struggling to grasp the purpose of your facts and figures, move up the Ladder. The question to ask now is, "Why?" Talking about why something is important drives you back up the Ladder and connects the details with your theories, goals or other abstractions.
Here are some tips for climbing the Ladder:
- Bring details together to form patterns and trends, to reveal how the basics connect to your abstractions. Charts, graphs and other diagrams are useful tools here.
- Your audience will struggle to grasp the importance of specific details if it sees them in isolation, so discuss the wider context and help it to see the "bigger picture."
- Form summaries and talk about your conclusions. As you do, touch upon values that will appeal to your audience – for example, success or transformation.
Staying on the Same Level
"Dead level abstracting" sometimes has its place. Details and specifics might occasionally be what your audience needs. At other times, being intentionally abstract works. You don't have to continually leap up and down the Ladder of Abstraction if it's not what your audience needs at that time.
Say, for example, that you need to walk your team through a complicated workflow or give it directions to a supplier's factory across town. If you spoke in abstractions, you'd likely have a very confused team.
Equally, because abstractions are vague, you can use them to your advantage whenever you need to avoid giving specific details – when you're trying to keep information confidential, for example.
Linguist Samuel I. Hayakawa popularized the Ladder of Abstraction tool in his book, "Language in Action," first published in 1939.
The Ladder sets out the levels at which people think and communicate. At the bottom, words are firm, concrete and easy to understand. As you climb up each rung of the Ladder, you become less detailed and increasingly abstract.
Concrete and abstract information are both useful, but restricting yourself to just one or the other limits your communication. You'll more likely engage people by continually moving from the bottom to the top of the Ladder, and back again, because you'll give them both the detail and the "bigger picture" concepts.