Ladder of Abstraction
If you are a writer or a speaker this will help you understand how words work and how to make you message stick. This talk comes from the books Presentation Zen by Garr Reynold and Language in Thought and Action by S. I. Hayakawa.

Here is a recording and slides for the Ladder of Abstraction talk that I gave at the Austin Rhetoric Club a few weeks ago.

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Leave me a comment and let me know what you think!

The Ladder of Abstraction I got this blog and I set up a RSS syndication feed which means that you can subscribe to it though an RSS agrigator on your computer but I was having some trouble yesterday because I was also trying to syndicate the RSS feed from podcast which is also a blog onto my blog so that you could see both feeds on the same page.

The problem was that the RSS feed that was on there was looking toward the wrong FTP server so the xemail link was bad. Who understood what I just said? Two people! That was exactly what I was expecting.

What I will be talking about today is something called the “curse of knowledge.”

Believe it or not knowledge is a curse or it can be. Here are a few reasons why knowledge can be such a curse. #1 It can make us proud. “Knowledge puffeth up” is what the Bible says. #2 The other thing that knowledge does to speakers is it makes it hard for us to communicate. The way that it does that is when we have knowledge it’s difficult for us to understand that other people don’t have that same knowledge. So when we speak to them we speak in terms and abstractions that make perfect sense to us but that have no meaning for our listeners.

So when I talk about an RSS agrigator only a few people know what that means. If you know what that means it opens up a whole world of meaning in your mind but if you don’t know what it means you start to fall asleep. I was looking at some of your expressions and you were like “oh, no! This guy is talking about stuff that I totally don’t understand!” I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t of understood what I just said until my blog broke yesterday and I had to fix it. I was asking Google help and then I had a friend come over and fix it. So the talk that I’m giving is based off of two books. One is “Presentation Zen” which came out recently. It is amazing! The guy is Japanese so he mentions Zen but it’s not very Buddhist despite the name. He has some really great principles on simple communication.

The other one is by another Japanese guy; “The Love Langue of Thought and Action.” That is what this talk is about in part and the Ladder of Abstraction. So most speeches are boring, right? Most speeches are boring. Why is that? What makes speeches boring? Because of the person that presents it? O.K. more specifically how does that person make it boring? Monotone voice? To fast? Some one has heard that talk before? They pause? There are lot’s of things about the way that we speak that can make it boring but it also a lot about what we say that can make it boring and unclear.

You see even if I was what I was saying earlier in that example was interesting and I was saying it in a good way because of what I was saying was unclear it was boring. So, I bet you are asking what is the “Ladder of Abstraction?” Well, let’s look at our good friend, Bessie, the cow. She is a key to understanding the ladder of abstraction. You see, Bessie, here is not any cow. This particular cow is Bessie! She is seperated from all of the other cows is Bessie the very specific, individual cow.

The word cow is a little more generic. It’s a little more abstract. It doesn’t just include, Bessie, it also includes all of the other cows that are in existence. Now remember we are talking about words that make words make sense. Because if our words don’t make sense we don’t make sense and if we don’t make sense we are BORING! Right? So to explain the ladder of abstraction I have a slide.

On the bottom of the ladder I have “Bessie” A level up from that I have “cow” which includes Bessie and the other cows. Then I have “livestock” which also includes “Horton the pig” and all of the other pigs. Then up above that we have “farm assets which not only includes the livestock but also the tractors, the shovel, the elbow grease that the farmer puts in…well that isn’t really an asset……anyways, you go on up and there you have asset which not only includes stuff on the farm but his stuff in the bank and the real estate that he owns. And then finally we have “money.”

So, Bessie, down here at the bottom is money in a kind of abstract way. Y’all laugh about this but so often we tend to be way up high on the ladder of abstraction. We say money but we’re thinking Bessie but we aren’t saying Bessie. One of the things that I want to warn you about is dead level abstracting. Dead level abstracting is very bad. Dead level abstracting is basically not moving up and down the level of abstraction. Dead level abstracting takes to forms. Number one is people who get stuck in the details.

Who gets stuck in the details? Team Policy people or Lincoln Douglass debators? Team Policy! Oh, we love those details! I have pieces of evidence to read in four minutes and by, Golly, you are going to hear all of those pieces in the first minute and a half! So, we try to cram in all of the details. Allot of you have read Science text books that cram in all of the details. What happens when you cuddle up at night with your Science text book? You have a great sleep! Some of my best naps were inspired by Science text books!

The thing is, and I do remember taking Science, and all I needed to grasp Science, and I did get this in Biology was the big picture. How does this information connect with everything else that I am learning? How does it apply to my life? In Biology they were like germs make you sick. You need to know what is going on in your body and what makes you get sick and I was, like, okay! I understood that! Then I took Chemistry.

I asked my Chemistry professor why I needed this. His answer was; “Well, you need it so that you can get into college!” Well, I went to a college that didn’t need it. So I didn’t need it and I didn’t get the big picture that I so desperately needed. The other temptation is to get caught up in the clouds. Who does this? Team policy or Lincoln Douglass people? Lincoln Douglass people! “Judge, I’m here to talk to you today about Justice.

I’m not exactly sure what Justice is or what exactly comprises Justice but it is very important. In fact, I value Justice!” So we then have very abstract, very unclear debates. What you’ll have is two Lincoln Douglass debators using such abstract terms that at the end of the round the judge had no idea what they were saying so they will vote for the person that they liked the best or who spoke the best and it will wind up being all about persuasive speaking. That is why for Lincoln Douglass people it’s all about being persuasive because the judges won’t know what you are saying half of the time! If they could understand you then they would vote for you a lot more. Does that make sense?

Also learning how to go up and down the ladder of abstraction can be helpful when you play games. Have you ever played “Twenty Questions?” Have you ever played “Twenty Questions” and not been able to figure it out even after forty questions?

If you’re doing dead level abstracting you will never win “Twenty Questions.” “Is it a vegetable, animal, or mineral?”

“It’s an animal.”

“Is it a cow?”


“Is it a bear?”


See you could do that all day and use up all twenty of your questions but if you understood the ladder of abstraction you could win “Twenty Questions” with far less questions than twenty. My mom once got the wax on top of the king of spades in her drawer back in her room within twenty questions. Her family is very compitive at this game and they have little machines, you can get a computer that will have you think of things and it will ask you twenty questions, with you answering yes or no and it will figure it out.

People will be, like, “It’s magic!” No, it’s not! It’s the ladder of abstraction! Okay, it’s this thing. The the ladder of abstraction is very helpful but not only that if you are ever using a filing system it uses the same type of thing. What the is this on the ladder of abstraction? You’ve got a really big filing cabinet for finances.

In one drawer you have you’re family’s finances and in that drawer you have you’re budget folder. In that folder you have you’re January budget and in that folder on a certain piece of paper you will have you’re January budget for food. You see how that is very specific and yet still a little piece of a larger more abstract system? Now we will focus more on how to use the ladder of abstraction.

The ladder of abstraction can help you win debate rounds. It can also help you to communicate better. The goal is to make your arguments sticky. If you’re judge can not remember your first speech as he’s casting his ballot you lose unless he remembers the other team even less. The goal is to get your arguments sticky.

To illustrate this I’m going to give you to messages on the same idea and you can tell me which one is more sticky. Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry though maximum team centered innovation and strategically targeted arrow placed intitiaves. Or we could say “Our mission is to put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade.” The 2nd statement was from JFK. He said those word and our nation was like, “Yes! Beat the Russians!”

So we put a man on the moon and brought him back safely by then end of the decade. Allot of men died in the process but by Golly, we got it done! What it was was it was sticky! It stuck in the minds of Americans. It rallied us to a common purpose and we got things done.

Now, I’m going to quickly give you some principles from “Presentation Zen.” One of the keys to a sticky argument is to keep it simple. There was a reason why Jesus’ talks in the wilderness were repeated and repeated and repeated to the edges of the earth. The reason why is because He kept His message simple. While we take it for granted how simple Jesus’ messages were can you imagine someone who contains all knowledge communicating to us?

Can you imagine how complex what He said could of been? Have you ever heard a college professor talk? A college professor doesn’t have a fraction of the knowledge that Jesus had and yet he is still so complex in what he says that sometimes you’re like; “I think what he just said was good or I might have disagreed with it. I don’t know!” Jesus was talking about very abstract concepts. How did He talk about concepts? Lets take the Kingdom of Heaven?

He used simple, simple langue. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a pearl of great price that a man found. He sold all that he had so that he could buy that pearl.” It’s very very simple. Another thing that helps make our arguments sticky is if they are unexpected. Who expected me to start talking about computer programming langue at the beginning of this talk? Sometimes what you need to do is do the unexpected. Jesus did a lot of unexpected things. He would be talking and then some one would ask Him if it is lawful to pay taxes and everyone would get quite wondering what he was going to say. Jesus said; “Give me a coin.” It was so simple.

I would venture to guess that most people don’t have most of the Bible memorized. but that was so simple, so unexpected, so concrete that we would remember. If we can speak in those little proverbial terms such as “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” It’s those simple little things that are so concrete. Another thing that is helpful is to make it concrete. Jesus spoke in very concrete langue. He talked a lot about farms, farmers, shepards, coins, fig trees, things that we would all interact with. Things that are concrete.

He didn’t use big words. The theologians have taken Jesus’ simple words and have added big words to them. Jesus didn’t need big words. He was so smart. So cool. By Golly, he could talk about a coin and make it profound. Another thing is credible. People won’t listen to you much if they don’t beleive what you’re saying. I want everyone to listen to what I’m about to say; “Statistics do no make you credible.” You can use statistics but what makes you credible is the contextuluzation of those statistics. Steve Jobs, I would encourage you to watch him.

He’s one of the better presenters in the more modern form with using slides. The best, I think, traditional speaker is Alan Keys. If you can find a recording of him, he’s great! They’re styles are very different. We need a kind of balance. Anyways, Steve Jobs presented statistics at the beginning of his most recent talk he’s talking about market shares. Instead of listing off how are market share was 26% or whatever he compared his market shares to other peoples’ market shares. That made it very credible. Very real. He told us a story and used contextulazation.

Here is an even better example. You can say; “66 grams of fat” and then you can talk about how fattening that is or you can say “66 grams of fat is equivalent to 3 big Macs.” Suddenly, that can stick in my mind. “3 Big Macs! That’s a lot of fat!” That is what you need to do. Don’t just sight statistics. Break it down. Next is emotion.

What I’ve learned in my marketing classes is that we Americans think that we are rational beings and we think that we buy products for rational reasons and marketeers are very good at getting you to think that you are buying their product for a rational reason. When really you’re not. This is also true with sharing the gospel. I can think of only one person that I know that actually came to Christ by looking at the stats and the figures and logic.

This guy is an engineer and he’s very effective and he’s well very much an engineer. The rest of us are not engineers and we don’t make desicions based off of facts and reason. Most everyone makes their desicion based on emotion and then come up with a reason. It’s very important to learn to appeal to emotion. Let’s say that you’re talking about the devastation of the Hurricane Katrina or the war or immigration. You could share a lot of facts about how badly they are treated or you could tell a story about a family who came to the U.S. to keep from dying, to keep from starving to death.

They already had a few children in the U.S. who were citizens but when the came over the Immigration Services nabbed the family and thrust them back into Mexico, took the children who had been born in the U.S. and put them into foster care and absoulutly destroyed that family. Did you see how much more impactful that was them a bunch of statistics. You could tell about Katrina and how millions of people were displaced or you could tell a story of one person who you know who had to flee for their lives from the water. Connecting emontioally is so much more effective then just giving facts.

That is the best way to up and down the ladder of abstraction, it’s sticky and memorable. The best way is to tell stories. Jesus did this all the time and so did God. He had a book of 66 little books. What does He spend the whole first book doing? Telling a story! There is basically no preaching at all in Genesis. It’s the same way with the first part of Exodus and then around Exodus 20 He tells us how to live.

He talks about murder and you can look back to Genesis and see the first story of the first murder and you can see how that broke God’s heart and Adams’ heart. He says not to steal. You can look back and find stories about people stealing. You can look back and see what that means in the context of a story. They do this in Japan very well. The way they do training is they have a Sin Pi and a Co hie.

The Sin pie is the trainer or the coach and the Co hie is the greenie. The guy that doesn’t know anything. They match them together and the Sin pi trains the Co hie by telling him stories. Instead of saying here are all of these facts and how you are more likely to get hurt if you don’t wear you’re hard hat he tells him the story of that one poor fool who didn’t wear his hardhat and died.

So the Co hie always wears his hard hat and every time he takes it off he remembers poor Johnnie who didn’t wear his hard hat. It’s far more effective. Okay, back to the ladder of abstraction. Dictionaries do not give words their meanings.

Now this is really important when you’re competing and you’re saying I have Black Law’s dictionary or I have Webster’s. Dictionaries don’t give words their meanings. The meanings existed so we had to attach words to them. Sometimes there are meanings that words can’t hardly express so that is why we have art. That’s why God not only wrote the Bible but He also wrote the Clear Testimony of Nature.

Paul talks about this how the Gospel is clear in nature. You can look at a tree and be like what can this tree teach me about the Kingdom? It’s not that the tree is the Kingdom but if the tree can teach us things. That is why Jesus was able to use such concrete examples from the very beginning because God wrote those truths into nature from the very beginning.

If you’re looking and asking the right questions you can find the truth in nature but when you read the Bible and study nature you learn so much more. The Bible says that the Holy Spirit is like breath, like wind. So you’re like “I need to go learn about wind!” So you go learn about wind and suddenly what you learn about wind shows you more about the Holy Spirit. So the meanings existed and we simply attached words to the meanings.

There are different types of definitions. Extetionsal and Intentional . Extensional means that you can just point at something and say that is a pig and I mean a pink animal with four legs. But if I point at you and say that you are a pig it has a totally different meaning. Some words their connotative meanings speaks so loudly that their denotative meaning is lost. The denotative meaning of say the stars and the bars, that flag, is that it was a nation that existed and believed in states rights but the conative meaning of that flag is slavery and racial hatred.

You have to be careful with the words that you use, that their conative meaning is not offensive. A lot of time it simply depends on the context of the word. Like a note. The notes in a melody make sense in the context of the song just as the words make sense in the context of what we’re saying. That is how stories help. They give some context to what we say. Here is a real life example of how using the ladder of abstraction can help you. If someone defines something by going up on the ladder of abstraction take them into the clouds.

For example; “What do you mean by the word red?” “Well it’s a color!” (Go up on the ladder) “What’s a color?” “Well, it’s a quality.” “What’s a quality?” “Hey, what are you trying to do anyways?” Form a definition loop around the other team. You can do this allot. This happens when the other team defines a word by staying on the same level of the ladder.

“What do you mean by democracy?”

“Democracy means the preservation of Human Rights.”

“What do you mean by rights?”

“By rights I mean those privileges that God grants us , inherent privlages.”

“Such as?”

“Liberty, for example.”

“What do you mean by Liberty?”

“Religious and Political Freedom.”

“What do you mean by religious and political freedom?”

“Well, it’s what enjoy under a democracy.”

See? It’s gone in a full circle. Pull people down in cross examination and make them be more specific. Get them to reveal the true truth of what they are saying. A politician can get up and talk for a really long time and say nothing by simply staying abstract. “I beleive we should improve education in the U.S.!

We need to do this by making sure that the class rooms teach better materials and that the students learn better. We need a smaller government. We need to do things smaller! We need to have a better economy!(Everyone is like “yeah, better economy! Fix the economy!) But they never say how they are going to fix the economy. Be careful of that in a debate round. You can easily lose the round or bore you’re judge. You don’t want to be boring. Go up and down the ladder of abstraction.

If you can tell an emontially compelling story to connect with the judge you can get them to vote for you. I used to tell a story of story of a blizzard and the currant IRS system and how they take up so much time. The judges were like “Yeah!” So you need to connect with judges.

In closing I would like to tell a story. Antioch in the Bible was located on the southern border of Turkey and the northern border of Syria. The church in Antioch was known for it’s church planting.

It sent out mission teams. It sent out Paul and Barnabas, John, Mark, and Paul and Sylas. That church planted all though out the Roman world. God allowed the lamp of the church to be exstinusished in that place. Two decades ago you could count the number of people in the churches by the dozens.

The lamp of the Gospel had completely gone out. He is allowing the lamps of Europe to also go out. If you look and see what has happened in Europe in the last 100 years we can see that His light is going out.

We can look and see the same thing happening here in the U.S. but God is wanting to do something with our generation. God has a plan but the enemy is fighting against Him. The enemy has a 3 fold plan to stop God’s plan. One way is though addictions. We can get distracted with addictions such as gaming, alcohol, or drugs. We can not do what God wants us to do if this addiction is consuming our passions.

The second way that Satan is trying to stop us is though abortion. He knows that we can not speak if we are dead. 1/3 or my generation has been killed. The enemy is serious. Dead serious. The third thing that the Devil is trying to do to destroy the light is though apathy. If he can’t kill us or addict us, he’ll get us to just not care, to keep the truth we know to ourselves. He’ll keep us out of the public square, out of the voting booth. Out of a world that is falling. I ask you to say no to these three things. Say no to addiction. If you know some one who is addicted pray for them.

Say no to abortion. Take a stand. Say no to apathy. We must make stand up and make a difference and help stop these dying children. So that we might defeat the enemy and also his third plan, that of apathy. We can stand up and say no. You can say no. You can say I will stand up for God’s purpose in this generation.

I will not let the lamp go out while I’m alive. Generations of Christians have died to see the light of their nation continue to b urn. The lam p in China is beginning to shine for after more than 1800 years. God wants to use you. Thank you!