The Ladder of Abstraction

Balancing Hard Facts With Visionary Ideas

The Ladder of Abstraction - Balancing Hard Facts With Visionary Ideas

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The Ladder of Abstraction can help people "see the wood for the trees."

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....

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