You have worked hard, and now you present your result to your audience.
Your audience shows no response.
Did they not understand? Were they bored? Or both?
It’s a common challenge for every knowledge worker: how to prevent people from tuning out when you discuss your complex topic.
Of course, to what extent your audience is involved with your story depends on multiple factors. But one of those factors is often overlooked by communicators: abstract language.
Abstract language won’t get your audience engaged
Scientists experiment on test subjects – not on Sean, Alexandro and Natasha. Programmers don’t build banking apps, they build mobile payment solutions. And urban planners describe your daily, crowded underground ride to work as a data point in urban mobility studies.
These abstractions may be useful for expert communication within specialist bubbles. But for most readers and listeners, excessively abstract language is the pessimum. Which is an abstract way of saying that, well, it puts people to sleep. That’s because abstract terms are difficult to picture. You need colorful, concrete details to tell vivid, engaging stories that are easy to understand.
Since abstract language is very common in science and policy, you may be so accustomed to using it, that it’s difficult to recognize and turn it into something more lively.
6 suggestions to make your abstract story more concrete and vivid
1. Appeal to the senses
When you describe things in sensory terms – hairy, pale brown, plate-sized – you help your audience create a mental image. Such mental imagery turns your story into a vivid experience. Which in turn will get your audience more involved.
This is why a famous book about the devastating effects of pesticides on the environment has the title Silent spring, and not The adverse environmental effects of indiscriminate pesticide use. Describing the possible disappearance of birds, and suggesting what spring would sound like if they did, is much more effective than a description that doesn’t appeal to the audience’s imagination.
Sensory descriptions make your story easier to understand. That is because, no matter how good we are at abstract thinking, we experience the world first and foremost through our senses. Therefore, we process sensory information much more easily.
For this reason, describing nanomaterials as ‘smooth’ or ‘rough’ is more effective than discussing their ‘surface topographies’. We could never touch these surfaces, but we can imagine what they are like, because we know what roughness and smoothness feel like.
A polished beach ball
In 1957, artificial satellites were a new phenomenon. So when the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, was launched into orbit that year, most people had no idea what this novel technology looked like. Therefore, a Time magazine journalist described the Sputnik in sensory detail:
“…hundreds of miles from the earth, a polished metal sphere the size of a beach ball passed over the world’s continents and oceans.”
That the Sputnik was polished, spherical and beach-ball-sized was probably not the most important thing there was to say about it. (It was launched by the Soviets, for instance.) But these little details were essential to help Time readers picture this novel thing. A more abstract definition – something like a man-made device orbiting the earth – would have been less helpful.
A hairy pumpkin seed
Recently, scientists discovered a new and unusual looking species of microbes. Most people don’t look at images of microbes every day, and on top of that, this one was very different from more common microbes. Therefore, the journalist who reported on the discovery described what they looked like as follows:
“…under the 3D magnification of scanning electron microscopy, the creatures somewhat resemble hairy pumpkin seeds.“
What was striking about these microbes was that they appeared to belong to a previously unknown super-kingdom, which meant that the ‘tree of life’ had to be reorganized. The image of the hairy pumpkin seed is the cartwheel that carries this more abstract information about biological classification. And the odd mental image may help you remember this story too.
2. Create characters (they needn't be human)
It’s less common to use characters in information-driven stories – but not less effective. Using a character, you can make your complex story more accessible and easier to understand.
So, if your story is about people, don’t hide them behind abstractions; describe them as real human beings. Instead of Alzheimer patients, introduce seventy-eight-year old Joanna, who can’t remember her children’s names, but loves to walk with them in the park. Or instead of the super-rich, mention Shahid Khan, whose net worth is 8.1 billion dollar, and who owns, among other things, a British football club and a 300-foot superyacht which took 6 years to build.
Is your story not about people? No problem. Non-human characters are at least as interesting as human ones.
Anything that can ‘carry’ the story like a human character would, is suitable. For instance, you could describe corruption from the perspective of a bribe that goes from hand to hand. Or explain photosynthesis by describing it from the ‘viewpoint’ of a carbon dioxide molecule. Or show how misinformation spreads online, by reconstructing the spread of one notorious conspiracy theory.
Complex processes become easier to understand when you describe them from such a single perspective. A character provides a red thread that helps your reader navigate the complexities of your topic.
So, ask yourself: who or what could serve as a protagonist in your story?
A potato’s journey
In 1997, Asian countries were on the verge of a financial crisis that threatened to spread to the American market. A financial journalist called Richard Read was tasked with explaining this to his American readers.
Read estimated that they would not have the patience to plough through abstract economic analyses. So, he decided to focus on something very concrete instead: a batch of potatoes, grown in the US, and destined to be sold as French fries in a McDonald’s in Indonesia.
These potatoes became the main characters of the story. They were taken from farm to factory, and from factory to a freighter ship that took them to Asia. This allowed Read to tell the stories of the people who handled them along the way: the potato farmers, truck drivers, sailors and potato distributers – all of whom might be affected by the crisis.
By focusing on a single batch of potatoes, Read illustrated that the American and Asian economies were intertwined. He explained ‘globalization’ in a way that a more theoretical explanation could never do.
Tweets from Mars
NASA’s current Mars mission has an ambitious research agenda: investigate the chemical and mineralogical composition of the surface, search for the ‘building blocks of life’, and map Mars’ weather and climate, and that’s not even all. The mission has already produced a pile of scientific publications on a wide range of topics. But of course, these are not very accessible to non-experts.
Enter Curiosity, the Rover that landed on Mars in 2012. She is the central character in a more accessible story about this mission.
NASA presents her like a creature: she has a ‘body’, ‘eyes’, a robot arm with a ‘hand’ and a ‘neck and head’ (a mast with cameras). What is more, NASA gave Curiosity a voice, or rather, a Twitter account. That’s how Curiosity keeps the world up to date about her discoveries. She currently has about 4 million followers.
Through Curiosity, NASA created a single perspective that helps people follow the mission: that of a brave little robot on a faraway planet. Looking good on selfies like this one:
3. If your story is about people, talk about people
Take ‘gentrification’. What does that mean?
A dictionary definition gives you an idea: ‘the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, raising property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses.’
But that’s still quite abstract. What does ‘deterioration’ mean – crumbling houses, or crime and violence? And what exactly happens to you when you are ‘displaced’? The definition doesn’t tell you.
Gentrification looks and feels different in London, Shanghai and Cape Town. The abstract definition summarizes what’s common in all gentrifying neighborhoods worldwide. It ignores local differences and individual experiences. This generalization enables analysis. That is the value of abstraction.
But if you want to tell an engaging story about something that your audience isn’t familiar with, then the messy, local, colorful realities are indispensable storytelling resources. Specific details about real people and their experiences help your audience picture your topic.
So, to illustrate gentrification, you might zoom in on, for instance, a poor resident of a Cape Town neighborhood that is shaped by a long history of Apartheid. Describe how the development of luxury hotels and apartments is driving up his rent. Tell how he has seen neighbors and friends leave, and how unfamiliar faces and expensive shops now dominate the street view. To paint a picture and to get your audience engaged, you need such specifics.
We all live in Dollar Street
Global wealth inequalities are often expressed in big numbers. You have probably read somewhere that forty-two million people, or 0.9 percent of the world population, possess more than 1 million dollars. Or that the top 26 richest people have the same net worth as the poorest half of the world’s population, which is about 3.8 billion people.
But what does that mean for the people involved? What is it like to own a million dollar? What is ten dollar worth in Madagascar, Ecuador or Moscow?
The online photo project Dollar street makes wealth inequality concrete. It invites you to imagine that the whole world population lives on one hypothetical street: Dollar Street. Households are sorted according to monthly incomes, with the poorest people living on one end of this street, and the richest on the other.
You can click on a family, say, the Paramanik family in Bangladesh, and see photos of their household: the kitchen, bedroom, toilet, toys, toothbrush.
For each family on Dollar Street there are photos of the same types of things. By selecting a category – say, ‘kitchens’, you can see how people cook across the world – from open fires to built-in kitchens.
A very telling category is ‘most loved item’. On the poor left end of Dollar street, people cherish a pair of scissors, a plough, and, strikingly often, passports and other official documents. On the right, people love their camper cars and Ipads.
As it turns out, comparing what shoes people wear across the world, where they pee, and what things they cherish most, gives you a much better idea of wealth inequality than numbers can.
4. Connect to the world of your audience
If you work on topics like diabetes, or if you study macro-economic trends, it is relatively simple to connect your work to your audience’s everyday lives. After all, they have blood sugar levels and specific diets, and they are affected by economic ups and downs.
Nevertheless, you may not usually make this connection explicit. If you are trained to use generalizing language, you probably discuss blood sugar levels in the abstract. And talk about economic factors and unemployment levels. As a result, your story feels more distant to your audience than it actually is – which means that you missed an opportunity to get them involved.
If you instead refer to their blood sugar levels, which may be spiked by the sandwich they just ate, your story is suddenly also about them. The same happens when you link inflation to their monthly budget. In this way, you make your story more relevant and easier to understand.
This is also possible with topics that are more distant from your audience’s everyday experience. Compare a newly discovered microbe to the ones that live in their kitchens or on their skin. Or, when you discuss cosmic rays, mention the effects that this radiation can have on your audience’s computers. Even if the relevance is less obvious, you still emphasize the fact that this is about your audience’s world.
These are your cells
Consider these first few lines of an article about genetic mutations:
“As you read this article, the cells in your body are dividing and the DNA in them is being copied, letter by letter. So long is the human genome—more than 3 billion letters—that even an astonishingly low error rate of one in many million letters could amount to 10 new mutations every time a cell divides.”
The author addresses the reader directly, and refers to the real time that it takes to read the text.
People may not be happy to be reminded of what could go wrong in their bodies – which is probably why the author proceeds to discuss how most of these mutations are harmless. Nevertheless, this opening is an effective way of emphasizing the relevance of the topic to the readers. It makes it more difficult for the reader to think this is not about them.
This is your city
Projections show that because of global warming, the sea level may rise up to one to two meters at the end of this century. Or even more, if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase.
Though striking, such projections are difficult to connect to our everyday world. On a human scale, the year 2100 is a lifetime away. There is uncertainty in these predictions: how high the seas will rise depends on many variables. Also, it is difficult to picture what average sea level rise means. Any idea how one meter would affect your hometown? Or two?
In the app Surging seas you can check this out. It shows you a map of the world, which you can manipulate by tuning the sea level up or down. You can scroll to your home in, say, The Netherlands or England, to see which areas flood when the sea level rises 1.5 meter, and which at 3, or 10. When you see your own city flood before your eyes, street by street, as you turn up the sea level dial, that really brings it home:
5. Put numbers on a human scale
But in another way, we suck at dealing with big numbers. We really struggle to comprehend them. How much is 23 billion dollar? Is Iceland’s economy doing well? Do humans have a large or a small genome?
Knowledge workers often deal with such enormously big numbers: millions of years of evolution, hundreds of thousands of patients, billion-euro budgets. But if you want a non-expert audience to get a feel for these numbers, you must translate them to a more human, everyday scale. That is: to amounts, distances and time periods that we know from experience. For instance, this is how the BBC explains that a trillion is a very different number than a billion:
“A million seconds is 11 days, a billion seconds is about 32 years and a trillion seconds is 32,000 years.“
That still doesn’t really help you grasp the size of, for instance, the US’s 22-trillion-dollar national debt – but it does make the difference between billions and trillions more conceivable.
The cosmic calendar
The cosmic calendar is a one-year calendar, like the one on your wall or in your agenda, with the whole history of the universe mapped onto it. The Big Bang takes place on January 1st and the present is midnight December 31st.
It gives you a feel for the relative ages of, for instance, our solar system, which formed on September 2nd, and multicellular life, which emerged on December 5th. The dinosaurs arrived at Christmas day and disappeared on December 30th – compare that to us modern humans, who appeared on December 31st, a couple of minutes before midnight. Projecting ~13.8 billion years of history onto a single year makes these relative ages comprehensible.
You have probably heard of the gender pay gap: the difference in average salaries for men and for women who do the same job. Perhaps you have seen some percentages, or a bar graph. Those are quite clear ways of explaining it.
But now consider this interpretation:
The median salary for women working full-time is about 80 percent of men’s. That gap, put in other terms, means women are working for free 10 weeks a year.
Ten weeks of working for free is easier to imagine – and much more striking.
In Great Britain, it is quite hard for people under forty to buy a house. In the past 20 years, house prices have increased about seven times faster than their average incomes.
Got that? House prices didn’t increase sevenfold, they increased at a rate that was seven times higher than the average income. What does that mean in concrete terms?
Catrina Davies wrote a book about the British housing crisis, called Homesick. In it, she explains the increase as follows:
“If food prices had risen as fast as house prices in the years since I came of age, a chicken would cost £51 (or £100 for those living in London).”
People don’t go out buying houses every day. But they do often buy food. By translating real estate trends to chicken prices, the increase becomes much easier to comprehend.
6. Use analogies, comparisons and metaphors
So how can you explain to them what you’ve seen down there?
If your story is difficult to visualize, counterintuitive, or very distant from our everyday world, literal descriptions may not be useful. And a quick introduction into quantum mechanics, or algorithmic trading, or fluid dynamics in the earth’s core is probably not feasible.
In such cases, a comparison, analogy or metaphor can bridge the gap between your specialist world and your audience’s frame of reference. For instance, when physicist Carlo Rovelli wants to argue that the linear flow of time as we experience it is an illusion – which is quite difficult to comprehend – he uses a comparison:
“The events of the world do not form an orderly queue like the English, they crowd around chaotically like the Italians.”
Metaphors can communicate meaning without going into the details. For instance, it would take quite some time to explain the myriad ways in which China censors and regulates the internet. The metaphor ‘The Great Firewall of China’ summarizes the main point in one neat concept. It’s comprehensible because it makes effective use of two simple, very familiar concepts: first, the Great Wall of China, and second, a firewall, which most people have on their own computers.
Years after the financial crash of 2008, still very few people understood what had happened. The Dutch journalist Joris Luyendijk immersed himself in the complex financial world of the London City, to understand the root causes of the crisis. In the book ‘Swimming with sharks‘ he explains what he has found.
The main problem, he argues, is that the financial system is riddled with perverse incentives. These incentives make otherwise good people act immorally.
But how to explain this without going into technical details? According to Luyendijk, he found a useful analogy when he tried to explain it to a seven-year old. This is what he told the child:
“Ok, so suppose the kid who stole a cookie and the kid who didn’t are both punished. What do you call that? … Right, that is unfair. Now, you do your homework, and your friend Loes doesn’t do her homework, and you both get the same grade. What will you do next time? … Exactly.”
By comparing financial law and market incentives to punishment and grades, Luyendijk makes the financial world comprehensible for everyone.
One third of humanity
Try to picture a group of 2.2 billion people. It’s impossible. The number is far beyond our imagination.
That’s how many Facebook users there are. A New Yorker journalist attempts to make this number a little bit less abstract in this article:
“If Facebook was a country, it would have the largest population on earth. More than 2.2 billion people, about a third of humanity, log in at least once a month.”
Comparing the huge number of Facebook users to the citizens of nation states makes it slightly easier to comprehend. What is more: the analogy encourages you to compare Facebook’s influence to that of a government. ‘A third of humanity’ is also effective – it is still a mind-bogging concept, but it at least it gives you some idea of the scale.
Chronic pain is baffling, even to experts who attempt to treat it. The longread The itch explores a theory about chronic pain that can be summarized as follows: pain is usually interpreted as a sign of physical damage to the body. But in some people who suffer from chronic pain, physical damage may not be the cause of their pain. It may be their perception, rather than their bodies, that’s ‘broken’.
This is how the author explains this theory:
“When your car’s dashboard warning light keeps telling you that there is an engine failure, but the mechanics can’t find anything wrong, the sensor itself may be the problem.
Doctors have persisted in treating [types of chronic pain] as nerve or tissue problems—engine failures, as it were. We get under the hood and remove this, replace that, snip some wires. Yet still the sensor keeps going off.“
Final advice: find a test audience
Often, we are blind to our own abstractions. We use these terms day in, day out, and so to us, it’s perfectly clear what they refer to. To us, they are concrete.
That’s why it’s smart to look for a willing, critical and honest test reader or listener, who can point out where your story becomes too abstract. When you try to explain to them what you mean, you may also find more creative explanations than you would if you would work alone.
Marieke is trainer, advisor and editor at Analytic Storytelling. As an experienced science journalist, she always looks for an engaging story behind complex subjects.