Ladder of abstraction describes how we human beings reason things in which actual words or patterns come at the base level while abstract words or patterns come at the top. Ladder of abstraction is a mode to understand how people think and communicate.
This term, Ladder of Abstraction, was first coined by S. I. Hayakawa when he was working on a book – Language in Action in 1939. To understand the ladder of abstraction, we need to understand two other terms beforehand – Abstract and Concrete.
Abstract in Ladder of Abstraction
Abstract means something which is only present in thoughts, and you can’t feel it physically.
Concrete in Ladder of Abstraction
Concrete is something that can be felt by touch.
As you move up to the ladder of abstraction, abstract increases, whereas if you go down, you will reach a concrete position.
It is simple to understand that the higher you are on the ladder of abstraction, the more abstract your idea is, and the lower you are on this ladder, your ideas are more concrete.
Understanding the Ladder of Abstraction with an Example
To understand this concept even better, you can take a real-life example of the ladder itself.
As you can go down on to this ladder, you reach a firm base that you can feel by touch. Whereas as you go up you are meeting nothing but air and you surely can’t touch it. So, what’s in the middle? They are neither concrete nor abstract; rather, they are a mix of both.
So, when you are at the bottom of this ladder, it will represent concrete things like – Fruits, Body-parts, and so on. And if you are on the top of this ladder, the ideas are more abstract like – Honesty, Intelligence, Freedom, and so on.
Irrespective of the domain you are into, the following ladder of abstraction is always necessary.
If you stay on the top of the ladder, you are just talking of concepts that aren’t backed by any fact; on the other hand, if you are on the bottom of the ladder, you are only talking of facts and not explaining them. Both are in-effective. You will have to find a balance between the two. Let’s understand the essence of the ladder of abstraction in a broader sense –
Understanding the right use of Ladder of Abstraction
To be successful in any domain in your career, you need to understand the importance of the ladder of abstraction. More importantly, you need to understand the concept of the ladder of abstraction. Unless and until you are aware of it, you can’t do well.
Let’s take writing into an example to understand the importance of the ladder of abstraction in a better manner. What defines good writing?
Being good with the language doesn’t mean that you are good at writing as well. Several people can write a book about anything you ask, but only a few of those will be meaningful.
Most of the writers stay on the top of the ladder all the time – they talk about imaginary things. These are general things that anyone can easily understand and write about them. In comparison, there is also a group of writers who talk about data/facts and lay tons of examples without connecting them with the abstraction.
Neither of the above two types is effective writing, and none is going to be beneficial for the writer and the reader both. You must have got the point. The goal is to have a balance. You must understand the ladder of abstraction to get that balance.
While you are explaining a general concept, you must lay specific examples to prove your point or make things clearer; on the other hand, if you are putting examples or talking about facts, you must generalize it or relate it with the real-life functions.
The same goes for any domain. If you are sticking at one level in the ladder of abstraction then you are not doing it effectively, you need to strike a balance.
You must know how to go up on the ladder and how to descend. Worry not; we will let you know how you can go up and down on the ladder of abstraction by following specific tips–
How to go up the Ladder?
If you are only sticking to the base of the ladder of abstraction, then you aren’t doing things effectively. You won’t get the best results out of your efforts. Mere talking about the facts/data will eventually bore your audience/users. You need to give them the abstraction that they seek from you. You need to tell them how that data affects them.
Sticking at the bottom of the ladder is just like a project manager citing a budget but fails to explain it. It is just like an engineer getting deep into the technical but unaware of its analysis. Neither of the two is appreciated.
Here’s how you can go up on the ladder of abstraction –
- Don’t just stick with “How” and also focus on “Why” while explaining your theories.
- Try to generalize things and give your audience a bigger picture.
- Pull out patterns and relationships from your facts and figures.
- Draw lessons from the data that you cite.
How to go down the ladder?
Hovering just on the top of the ladder is also equally disastrous as being on the down on the ladder. If you are only talking of the imaginary things, then it’s nowhere going to help you with your sole motive. Talking about Honesty, Freedom, and other similar concepts without backing them with data will make you sound like Politicians who don’t care about the facts.
Your audience/users won’t trust you if you aren’t backing your theories with proper facts and data. If you are struggling with going down on the ladder of abstraction then following tips may help you –
- Whatever theory you cite, try to introduce some real-life examples in it.
- Introduce numbers, data, and case studies in your theories.
- Be specific with whatever you are explaining.
- Using photographs or graphics to explain things will help.
- Don’t just concern about “Why” instead emphasize “How” to make things look more realistic.
- Use “Call-to-action.”
So, this is how you can go up and down on the ladder of abstraction. Following the ladder of abstraction is exceptionally crucial to get the best out of whatever you do. Finding the balance will boost your efficiency exponentially.
Let us now have a look upon the four rungs of Hayakawa’s ladder of abstraction with examples to understand the concept more lucidly-
Four Rungs of Hayakawa’s Ladder of Abstraction
Level 1- Specific, identifiable Nouns
Some of the examples can be Air Jordan Nike Shoes, peanut butter and jam sandwich, Detroit workers, New child of my friend, etc.
Level 2- More definite groups
Common examples of this one are house plants, middle-class, teenagers, clothing industry, TV serials, college campuses, and so forth.
Level 3- Broad Group of Names with little specification
Some of its notable examples are people, young people, women, industry, things, goals, television, and many more.
Level 4- Abstractions
The most abstract examples include features like beauty, life, success, nutrition, web device, fashion, good, time, communication, etc.
So, this was all about the ladder of abstraction and its role in channelizing our thinking patterns and communications. Making a balance between concrete and abstract ways of speaking is essential for getting favorable outcomes.
As said by Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher and one of the central Enlightenment thinkers- “Experience without theory is blind, but theory without experience is mere intellectual play.”
So, speakers should neither bury audiences with the avalanche of data without any relevant theory, nor should they discuss ideas and theories without any sharing any practical implementations. Instead making a balance between concrete and abstract patterns is essential for being an effective speaker.
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