The Power of Examples: How to Make the Abstract Concrete

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You’re an expert.

You’re an expert in something that other people find interesting and valuable.

As an expert, you are invited to speak at conferences and client seminars because you can share something new, something that will advance the audience’s knowledge, provide clarity and spark some new thinking.

Because you are a highly regarded expert speaking to an audience that knows less than you do, you will use language, provide technical details and share concepts that no one understands or cares about.

Then you would be an expert who is very bad at sharing his expertise.

And you would not be alone.

The knowledge gap between an expert speaker and her audience creates a significant communications challenge that many professionals struggle to overcome. It’s not easy to navigate but those who do it well will find themselves in hot demand.

So, the question I’d like to explore today is how do you effectively share abstract concepts and complex ideas in a way that is easy to understand?  The best and easiest way to do this is through examples.

In their book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Die and Other Survive, Dan and Chip Heath write thoughtfully about the importance of “concreteness” if we want to make our ideas clear, compelling and “sticky”:

“We must explain our ideas in terms of human actions, in terms of sensory information. This is where so much of business communication goes awry. Naturally sticky ideas are full of concrete images – ice-filled baths, apples with razors – because our brains are wired to remember concrete data. In proverbs, abstract truths are often encoded in concrete language: “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Speaking concretely is the only way to ensure our ideas will mean the same things to everyone in our audience.”

When you’ve been hired to share your knowledge and experience with an audience who knows less than you do, don’t force them to try and interpret what you’re saying, don’t make them work to extract meaning. That’s your job as a speaker. You must make the abstract concrete, make your expertise relevant and meaningful and use language and examples that will create a clear and shared understanding.

Here are four different ways to effectively incorporate examples into your next presentation:

  1. Leverage a light-hearted hypothetical scenario. Let’s say you’re speaking at a conference a few weeks before Thanksgiving and part of your presentation is about the effectiveness of using Decision Tree Analysis when making business decisions. Instead of prattling on about the theory and the power of this approach in the abstract, you could connect it to the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. So, for you, talking about Decision Tree Analysis in the context of a hypothetical Thanksgiving scenario might go something like this:

    "Decision Tree Analysis is all about making choices based on projected outcomes. Let’s look at the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend as an example. I could spend the weekend with my in-laws and extended family or I can take my immediate family to Disneyland. On one hand, there is an 87% chance that my husband Sam and I will have to return to couples therapy immediately following Thanksgiving. On the other hand, if I go to Disneyland with my family, there is a 95% chance that Sam and I, and our two daughters, Alexandra and Chloe, will create wonderful shared memories that we can cherish for many years to come. Hmmm…"

    The hypothetical example explains the Decision Tree Analysis process in a way that is fun and easy to understand. Once the concept is clear for people, you can share a real example from the audience’s industry, or it’s own organization, that further illustrates how the process of Decision Tree Analysis works and why it is, or has been, effective in their context.

  2. Draw on examples from the public domain. One of the best examples of using something in the public domain to make something complicated more concrete is the Big Mac Index that was created in 1986 by The Economist. The Index was developed “as a lighthearted guide to whether currencies are at their “correct level”. It is based on the theory of purchasing-power parity (PPP), the notion that in the long run exchange rates should move towards the rate that would equalize the prices of identical goods and services (in this case a burger) in any two countries. For example, the average price of a Big Mac in America in January 2015 was $4.79; in China it was only $2.77 at market exchange rates. So the “raw” Big Mac index says that the yuan was undervalued by 42% at the time.” ( The Economist used a universally understood food product – the Big Mac - to illustrate the purchasing power of currency in various markets. Not bad.

  3. Use metaphors or analogies. One of my clients was just discussing how he was going to help his team improve their project management process. He said, “The easiest way to change the direction of a large ship is pushing the ends of it. It’s very difficult to change the ship’s direction by pushing in the middle. Well, we’re going to focus on improving our process at the beginning and end of projects...” If you are having a hard time creating metaphors and analogies, plumb your passions . Maybe you love gardening or monster truck rallies or sewing or fly-fishing. How could you draw a comparison between an abstract professional concept and a personal pursuit in a compelling way? Doing so will demonstrate deep knowledge, showcase your personality and helps you make memorable point. The most indelible communicators in history, from Churchill to Clinton, use comparative devices. You should too.

  4. Share client success stories. One of the most powerful ways to make the abstract concrete is to share client success stories. Case study examples invite your audience into a story of transformation where people just like them went from a place of fear and frustration to a better place, one filled with confidence and success. And the best part? You were the bridge between the land of pain and suffering and ultimate triumph. Even though you were a supporting actor in the case study story—because your client is the lead character—you were the agent of transformation. Casting yourself in a supporting role helps you avoid sounding too self-congratulatory or grand-standy.

It’s a paradoxical thing, being invited to share our expert knowledge with people who don’t share our level of expertise. The very expertise that landed us the gig is the very same expertise that can make it hard to connect with an audience. We have to mind the gap. Examples are the bridge, use them well.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. How and when have you used examples with great results? Have you ever attempted to make the abstract more concrete and failed fantastically? Share your experience in the comments below.

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