Whenever you make a presentation, you want to use really concrete words.
Allan Paivio is the scientist who pioneered the concept of concrete words. In one of my favorite studies, Paivio analyzed peoples’ ability to remember concrete words vs. abstract words.
Concrete words have high “imagery value,” that is you can picture that to which they refer For example, words like road, bridge, clown and even picture, are all pretty concrete. But words like condition, amount, request and purpose are all pretty abstract.
Abstract words/phrases also include "core competencies," "strategic vision," and "value added." And that's why the best presenters avoid those phrases (and others like them)!
Paivio paired concrete nouns and adjectives and tested them against paired abstract nouns and adjectives, to see which words were easier to recall.
In every case, recall was better for concrete word pairs than it was for abstract word pairs. It’s just easier to remember “happy clown” and “spittle-flecked lips” than it is “essential nutrient” or “significant result.” In fact, and this is critical, you’ll remember totally unrelated concrete word pairs way better than you’ll remember related abstract word pairs.
Across Paivio’s experiments, concrete words could be remembered as much as 2-3 times more frequently than the abstract words.
Now here’s the real kicker; almost every presenter in business suffers from abstract word disease. Let me share some of the actual abstract word pairs tested in Paivio’s study:
- Complete set
- Annual event
- Useful purpose
- Original finding
- Critical condition
- Reasonable request
- Constant attention
- Adequate amount
- Significant result
- Possible guess
If you’ve ever sat through a corporate presentation, I guarantee you’ve seen word pairs like this (if not these exact ones). Over and over again people deliver presentations using abstract language. Then they look around bewildered as to why nobody remembers what they said. And the reason is because they are using language that is guaranteed not to be remembered.
Think about how many times you've sat through presentations using abstract words/phrases like "core competencies," "strategic vision," and "value added." It's tough to remember what was said in those presentations because the language was so abstract!
I’ve had the word choice conversation with a lot of CEOs. And while hundreds of them have gotten it no problem, there are thousands more that failed to achieve “significant results” on their goal-setting memos because they obtusely refused to give “constant attention” to this issue. See how easy it is to slip in that abstract language without even noticing? It’s a disease. If you want presentations that people actually remember, you had better address your abstract word disease and fast.
So the next time you’re about to give a presentation, ask yourself this question: Could the people listening to me draw a picture of what I’m saying?