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Concrete Language — How to cement simplicity with concrete language.

May 2, 2023
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8 min read
Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash
“Evil is the product of of the ability of human beings to make abstract that which is concrete.”
— Jean-Paul Sartre

We’re not as concrete as we could be. That isn’t good.

When we’re abstract, communication fails. 

Failure is expensive. In large companies, the cost of poor communication robs millions of dollars from the bottom line. Strategy confuses instead of clarifies. According to research by The Strategic Agility Project, less than a third of executives and managers can list three of their company’s strategic priorities. 

In the absence of clear communication, we do yesterday’s work, not today's. Projects fail. Transformation efforts stall. Change turns to swirl. Engagement dips, and employees leave.

So we try to make “it” clearer. To simplify.

But, in our effort to be simple, we go in the wrong direction. We go for abstract, not concrete.

The curious case of Trello and the pivot from abstract to concrete.

Trello didn’t burst onto the scene in 2011; it gently materialized.

Joel Spolsky, a co-founder of Fog Creek Software, was there. “It [Trello] started out as a small project, and then it caught on, and more people moved to that team to work on it. When we saw the traction it got internally, we decided to push it public.” 

At launch, Trello was announced as  “a super simple, web-based team coordination system.”

Spolsky took Trello to TechCrunch Disrupt, an annual gathering of founders, investors, developers, and business people interested in the startup and technology world. 

Disrupt is the place for technologists looking for a spotlight.

With a tagline of “Organize everything, together,” Trello placed but didn’t win. At Disrupt, the audience heard about a “team workflow platform and list manager.” Six words strung together that could not be more abstract. 

Trello had potential, though. 

A tech journalist described it as “easy to grasp (easier than it is to explain), easy to use, instantly shareable.”

(Easier than it is to explain). Ouch.

Even the name—Trello—was abstract. Clever but not clear. “Trello” came from "trellis," the wooden lattice in your garden for climbing plants. Trello's creators wanted the platform to support work, much like its namesake-supported plants.

Three years on, Trello took in its series A funding. 

The explanation had evolved—from the abstract, “team workflow platform and list manager,” to the more concrete, “visual to-do lists.”  

By the time Trello hit 5 million users, it was a “project and task-management system, functioning like a visual to-do list.”

Topping 7 million users a year later, Trello was “A digital whiteboard; a collaborative task-management software.”

By April 2015, Trello reached 8 million users and was described as a “task management App.”

In 2019, at 50 million users, Atlassian acquired Trello. The move from the abstract (easier to use than to explain) to the concrete coincided with an exponential increase in users and a $425 million acquisition.

You hear abstract language all the time in business.

It doesn’t help. It leads to chocolate conversations.

To identify abstract, all you have to do is ask, “What does that mean?” The explanation given will quickly move to concrete territory.

For instance, a CFO describes customer churn in basis points. 

“We’re experiencing a 7bps increase in our measured churn rate.”

Abstract.

“What does that mean?” 

“It means we’re seeing a 0.7% increase in our churn rate month over month.” 

Slightly more concrete.

“What does that mean?” 

It means we’re losing an average of 10 customers a day. 

Concrete.

You hear it everywhere. Economic Value? Abstract. Empowerment? Transformation? Abstract. NPS? Abstract.

Putting a score on it doesn’t make it more concrete. A score quantifies an abstract concept.

When we use concrete language, people get it, and they act on it.

This is dual coding theory.

Psychologist Allan Paivio argued that concrete words, which have both verbal and image-based links, are easier to remember and process than abstract words, which primarily have verbal associations.

Think, “put a smile on every customer’s face.” That’s a verbal and image-based association—you can see it in your mind's eye. “Increase our NPS score” means the same thing, but we have to think more and process more.

Our brains interpret concrete language like a clear roadmap. 

Abstract language is fuzzier and takes more work, like a set of vague directions. The roadmap gives us specific landmarks and distances. The vague directions, “go north for a bit” and “turn left when you reach the corner,” create confusion.

Over and over again, studies validate concrete language.

We’re more likely to recall what was said. We’re more likely to believe. We’re better able to solve problems. We are more empathetic. We’re more likely to achieve goals, make better decisions, and work together as a team.

So, why don’t we use it?

The usual reasons. Habit. Our own lack of expertise when faced with a complex subject. Preferring the looseness and ability to fence-sit by making a broad generic statement rather than a specific one.

All understandable but not helpful.

How can you get better at using concrete language?

Here are six things you can do today to get more concrete.

Make it about them.

The more “you” is used in the sentence,  or “we” or “our team,” the more concrete it is. It’s not for the greater good. It’s not for an abstract concept like a brand or an organization. 

Go from “Our data protection services protect critical business information” to “with our data protection services, you and your team can protect your critical business information.”

It’s this, not that.

Starting as a column in Men’s Health magazine, "Eat This, Not That!" has become a successful series of books selling millions of copies. It’s a lifestyle brand built around the power of concrete expression.

Do the same for your strategic imperative. Take the fairly ambiguous phrase, “build market-ready capabilities.” You might make that more concrete in a this/ not that way. "This means we will build specific capabilities across the organization—critical thinking, storytelling, change management—but we will not invest in an all-you-can-eat buffet of individual skills training.”

Before and after.

Before and afters don’t just work for Dyson, Weight Watchers, and home improvement shows, they make your initiative more concrete too. It’s the From/To or Yesterday/Today/Tomorrow construct that makes progress palpable.

For a digital transformation, that might look like this:

[Before] Fragmented customer data made it hard to get a complete view of their behavior and preferences.

[After] Centralized customer data provides improved insights, targeted marketing, and higher satisfaction.

Make a comparison.

You may be as confused by Analogy, Metaphor, and Simile as I am. It doesn’t matter. The point is comparisons make things concrete.

Imagine you’re a product manager trying to explain why you’re making improvements to a user interface. A comparison will come in useful. Even better—to make it concrete by supplying the picture for the mind’s eye.

You might show a picture of one of Concorde’s control panels.

“This is one of eighteen instrument panels of Concorde’s flight deck. An engineering marvel. The first, and to date only, supersonic civilian airliner. As you can see, all the controls are in one place, easy to hand. What you might call a “single pane of glass.” 

You can also see that a “single pane of glass” may mean unified, but it doesn’t mean simple. Consolidated doesn’t mean clear.

That’s why we are starting project clarity—to radically revamp our Ux. ”

Short-term, not long-term.

We’re procrastinators. So we put off important decisions.

We like a bird in the hand, instant gratification, and certain rewards. Two birds in the bush, the prospect of a delayed, maybe greater reward, is fuzzier and in the future. It’s not as appealing.

This is what economists call hyperbolic discounting. It’s the marshmallow test. Would you like a marshmallow now, or will you wait, staring at the marshmallow on your plate, for the prospect of two marshmallows later? 

Less than one in five of us will wait.

So why do we talk about grandiose visions and long-term plans without giving people a path to instant gratification?

Former world-class athlete and current CEO Darren Webster used the same kind of concrete thinking in setting goals for the World Championships in sprint kayaking. “The ambition was medalling in the 500M. But that doesn’t work on its own. It’s the process and the daily or weekly goals that keep you moving forward. Completing a series of gym sessions or beating a PB on the water.”

That same type of concrete thinking and short-term goal setting is what Goalster, a goal-setting app that helps people execute, is all about.

Scale numbers to human size.

The Piraha people live in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil, along the banks of the Maici and Branco Rivers. Their language—Piraha— contains three numbers. “One,” “two,” and “many.”

You might think that strange, but we are not that different.

Despite conceptually understanding zero, infinity, and all the numbers in between, our brains have to work hard to interpret them. Our working memory starts to become overwhelmed after five to nine items.

We lack concrete reference points for large numbers. A $billion? That’s a large number. A $trillion? That's a larger number. A $100 billion? Isn’t that a trillion? No, wait, that’s $1000 billion. Let me check Google.

See what I mean?

If you’re the CFO, and taking people through your numbers, scale them to human size. Instead of “We did $ 1 billion in sales last year,” try, “we did $ 1 billion in sales last year, that’s nearly $ 3 million a day. That’s $ 2,500 per day, per employee.”

Now you can be more concrete. That’s better.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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