The Ladder of Abstraction is a theory that was created and presented by linguist S.I. Hayakawa in his 1939 book “ Language in Action.” It basically describes the way that humans think and communicate in various degrees of abstraction.
Professionals are called upon from time to time to make presentations to Audiences that may lack their technical expertise to persuade them on a particular course of action. Understanding the concept of the Ladder of Abstraction is critical to making great presentations that ultimately connect with these audiences.
A ladder presents the perfect imagery for this concept. Like the ladder rests on solid ground, the bottom of the ladder of abstraction represents concrete things or ideas. The Middle of the ladder represents things or an idea that not entirely concrete, and yet not completely abstract, while the top of the ladder represents abstract ideas or concepts.
It is of the essence that public speakers avoid what in speech-making we call “dead level abstraction” which is speaking at one level of abstraction and not oscillating between the different levels. Good Speakers realize that Audiences need both concrete details and abstract ideas in order to make a strong persuasive argument. Major Speeches like Martin Luther King’s “ I have a Dream”, then Senator Barack Obama’s speech on race, and Steve Jobs launch of the Iphone were able to move up and down the ladder making the audience more receptive of their message.
Nancy Duarte an authority in the Structure of great presentations has done groundbreaking work in articulating the structure of some of history’s greatest speeches and her narrative alludes to the speakers avoiding “dead level abstracting” and greatly connecting with their audiences.
Conducting a comprehensive Audience Analysis as a part of speech preparation helps speakers to determine how to create a perfect rhythm, that balances between various levels on the ladder of abstraction and know from which point on the ladder to begin and end their presentations.
You can find more information on the Ladder of Abstraction using the following links
Andrew Dlugan, “The Ladder of Abstraction and the Public Speaker.” September 15th 2013 Available on http://sixminutes.dlugan.com/ladder-abstraction/#more-8707
Nancy Duarte, “The Secret Structure of great talks.” November 2011, Available on http://www.ted.com/talks/nancy_duarte_the_secret_structure_of_great_talks
Hayakawa S.I. and Alan R. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action (Plymouth; Mcneil, 1991), 85-95