Have you ever heard someone (perhaps even yourself) say something like, “our best-in-class quality and performance provide superior value that leads to unparalleled increases in productivity for our customers”?
Try to picture each of these words in your mind. You can’t, because they aren’t real or tangible. There’s nothing “wrong” with words like quality, performance and productivity, but you’re not doing yourself a favor if your conversations don’t use words that listeners can see, hear, feel, taste, or smell.
What do you give up when you lose concreteness?
When you give a presentation, or just have a conversation to persuade someone, you want your listeners to: listen, understand, believe, imagine and remember. Here’s how being more concrete can help:
Listen: People can’t be convinced if they don’t pay attention. Business abstractions such as quality, synergy, world-class, are used so often that we automatically block them out as meaningless buzzwords, while concrete words have the power to grab the listener by the shirt and force them to listen. You can talk about quality, or you can give a dramatic demonstration of it, by showing how beautiful or how tough your product is.
Understand: It’s tough to convince people who don’t understand your ideas. When we first learn about something, we learn about real objects, and then we gradually climb the ladder of abstraction. When everyone in the room shares a high level of knowledge, abstraction is efficient and can convey credibility. But when you’re selling an idea to someone, they typically don’t know as much as you do about it, so there’s always a danger that you will be more abstract and vague than you need to be.
Believe: One of the best ways to earn credibility is to show that you have been there and done that. Those who have, talk about real events, real people, and real things, not airy abstractions. You can mention customer complaints, or you can name a specific customer and share the language they used. Being specific is another aspect of concreteness, which is why even numbers can be used to make something more real. You can say your solution speeds up their process, or you can tell them it makes it 17% faster, which translates to $3.4 million in additional revenue.
Imagine: You are much more likely to be killed by a deer bounding across a highway than by a shark, so why do you think about sharks when you swim in the ocean but don’t worry about deer when you drive? Maybe it’s because the mental picture of having your living flesh ripped from your bones as the water turns red around you is a bit more vivid than a collision with a moving object.
People act on your ideas because they want to move away from pain or toward gain, and they are more likely to move when they can actively imagine the pain or the gain. Imagining real pains gets the motor running, and envisioning the future can get the wheels moving in the right direction. King’s Dream speech is memorable and inspiring because he helped an entire nation picture a better future. On a more mundane level, research has shown that concrete and specific implementation intentions are much more likely to be carried out than general desires.
Remember: Unless someone is making an immediate decision, which is unlikely in a complex sale, they’re going to have to remember what you said when they weigh the pros and cons. They will remember things and sensations more than they will remember concepts, especially when everyone is using the same concepts (quality, value, etc.) in their presentations.
How about a concrete example?
When Boeing designed the 727 in the 1960s, they could have told their engineers to design a best-in-class, high quality and high performance airplane. Instead, they told them to build a plane that could carry 131 passengers nonstop from Miami and land on runway 4-22 at La Guardia (because it’s a short runway). Besides making it clear for the engineers, do you suppose it made it easier to sell to the airlines?