How to Be Persuasive Using the Right Language Cues

Deliver your message using a marriage of two important communication styles: Abstract thinking and concrete examples. 

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #471

The problem with being a villian is that, well, you have to communicate like one. Villains don't explain, they command. 

It was a cold, gray morning and the Wicked Witch’s castle was chilled to the ramparts. The Witch called to her minions. “The weather disappoints!” she proclaimed. “Fix it immediately!”

Her minions scurried out of the room. She heard hammering outside, and smiled, imagining the wonderful wood-burning heater they were going to have for her in just a few moments. They wheeled in a large metal box, on wooden rollers. “Voila!”, cried the head minion, “it bends space and time and turns the snow pure white.” Pure white. White snow. W-T-F?

The Wicked Witch buried her head in her hands. 

Communication is Difficult

Some of the Wicked Witch’s problems are simply communication. She knows exactly what she wants: warmth! Either a heater or maybe little booties to protect her feet. But the language she’s using isn’t language that will work with minions. That’s because to get your message across, you need to send it in ways that work for everyone.

In my career—and I have been doing public speaking and training professionally for years—it seems one distinction is very, very important in crafting your message: the difference between abstract and concrete.

Abstract vs. Concrete Language

Abstract thinking drives progress

One of the things that separates Human from Beast is that humans can think abstractly. We give words to things, and then act as if those words are real. A Beast can say “R-o-o-o-a-r!” That's about it. The Wicked Witch can say “The weather disappoints! Fix it!” The words “weather,” “disappoints,” and “fix” are abstract. They refer to concepts and broad categories, not specifics. 

Abstraction drives pretty much all human progress. Without it, we couldn’t have language. We wouldn’t have science, or mathematics, or engineering. How would you feel about that? (pause) I’ll bet you thought something like, “OK. I guess that’s bad. But at least school would have been easier.”

Concrete thinking drives action

But you also wouldn’t have kitty pictures. You wouldn’t have stereos for dance parties. You wouldn’t have People Magazine or Oprah. You wouldn’t have the websites you keep open in your other browser tabs. And you wouldn’t have smartphones to take selfies and post on Instagram. Now you’re thinking: “ARGH!!!! Gu… sp… how… ARGH!!!” Life would be too horrible even to contemplate, right? 

Now did you notice what I did there? With broad abstract words like “science” or “math,” you get a vague picture in your brain and search for a single reason to care. But with specific, concrete language, you clutch your smartphone in horror, as you desperately sooth yourself by surfing KittenToob.com.

Abstract thinking is great for speculation, but it isn’t going to drive people to action. It doesn’t bring up strong emotion. Concrete thinking does. 

Some people respond more to abstract ideas. Others respond more to concrete ones. You can see this in political debates. Take flag burning. For some people, the specific imagery of “a burning flag” inflames their passion. For others, the abstract idea of “free speech” is what ignites them. The two sides can’t meet in the middle because there is no middle; they’re talking two different languages. 

Start with your preferred language

Fortunately, the two kinds of communication work well together. When you want to get your message across, give both the abstract idea, and concrete examples of that idea. Of course, you’ll be starting from your own preferred style, concrete or abstract.

If you’re starting with a concrete example you want to communicate, ask yourself why that example matters. What general principle is it following? You want to tell people “The little girl fell down the well!” Why does it matter? Because she’s a member of your community and you want to save her. That’s the abstract version. 

If you’re starting with an abstract idea, ask yourself why that abstract idea matters. What are specific examples of it? If you want to tell people “We have to save members of our community who are in danger!” ask yourself what examples you have. Maybe…the little girl who fell down the well.

Include both styles in your message

Now that you have both versions of the message, combine them. Say “The little girl fell down the well! She’s a member of the community and we must save her!” Concrete thinkers will hear the first part and be moved to action. Abstract thinkers will hear the second part and be moved to action. Sadly, in this case, everyone rushed to the well, and the little girl was nowhere to be seen…just…bubbles. 

Numbers can be general, too

This isn’t just limited to words. Numbers can be more abstract or more concrete. When discussing wealth inequality, conversations are almost always abstract. “The new tax bill only helps the top 1%!” Since the top 20% thinks they’re in the top 1%, they don’t object. But it changes when you use concrete numbers: “The tax bill only helps people who make over $396,000 per year.” When you lay the number on the table, people can clearly realize exactly how rarified the “top 1%” really is.

When you want to get your message across, give both the abstract idea, and concrete examples.

If you read the transcripts of my episodes, you’ll notice that every episode alternates between abstract and concrete. Even this episode does it. I present a concrete story, perhaps about an Wicked Witch, and then flip to the abstract idea, that unclear communication can be a problem. And if you were listening closely, you even noticed that the very sentence I just uttered, itself, included both the abstract idea and concrete example.

At last, the Wicked Witch knows what to do. She can declare, “The weather disappoints! Fix it immediately!” That’s the abstract version. Then she can give concrete examples. “It’s too cold! Bring me a wood-burning heater and some warm, comfy knit booties to keep my feetsies warm!”

Having saved hours of back-and-forth with her minions, she has a lot of thinking time as she warms her feet by the fire. She realizes minions make boring companions. Maybe she should turn good. That little girl she rescued from the well kept babbling on about collapsing wave functions and the Copenhagen interpretation and some German guy’s cat. Maybe she’d be a fine conversational companion. Just unlock her shackles and free her from the dungeon. What was her name again? Dorothy something-or-other?

This is Stever Robbins. Follow GetItDoneGuy on Twitter and Facebook. I give great keynote speeches on productivity, Living an Extraordinary Life, and entrepreneurship. Find me at http://SteverRobbins.com

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.