Abstract vs. Concrete

I find one of the most common problems entrepreneurs have in communicating about their product and/or company is a penchant for the abstract over the concrete. Big words, industry jargon, vague terminology, undefined concepts – you name it, I’ve heard it.

When I run into this problem I fall back on two rules of communications:

  1. Use common English terms, not business or technical jargon. Write or speak so your mother or your father could understand what you are saying, without the benefit of three degrees from MIT.
  2. Be concrete. What does that mean? The opposite of abstract, according to my Mac’s dictionary program:


adjective |abˈstraktˈabˌstrakt|

existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence: abstract concepts such as love or beauty.

The best way to be concrete is to use examples: specific instances. For example, instead of stating your company’s mission as “We aim to build a sustainable, environmentally sound world.” Use some examples, such as “One of CleanWorld.org’s major objectives is to stop the runoff from oil company plants that are polluting waterways like the Mystic River in Medford, through lobbying for the enforcement of existing anti-pollution laws.”

I rarely, if ever, find an entrepreneur using too many examples, most use none or too few. But don’t string them together, interleave them with the more abstract portions of your presentation. A great example of doing this was John Oliver’s Sunday, May 22nd This Week Tonight showJohn did a very thorough job of educating his audience on the complexities of state primaries and caucuses. But rather than droning on like a stereotypical college professor for half an hour, he intercut humorous examples with his more didactic narrative. By the end of the show you were both educated and entertained. If you have HBO, find a repeat or use the HBO Go app to watch it, or find it on YouTube – whatever you have to do. Because you will not often see such a masterful way of mixing a semi-technical lecture – political science – with illustrative and humorous examples.

Obviously entrepreneurs don’t have the staff, budget and other resources of a John Oliver, but don’t let that stop you from being concrete:

concrete |ˈkänˌkrētˌkänˈkrēt|


existing in a material or physical form; real or solid; not abstract: concrete objects like stones | it exists as a physically concrete form.

specific; definite: I haven’t got any concrete proof.

Not to turn this blog post into a grammar lesson, but nouns, particularly proper nouns like names of people, places and things, are concrete. Verbs are concrete. But be careful of those adjectives and adverbs!

Finally, many people reason by analogy: which is a comparison between two [concrete] things. Help them to understand what you are saying by providing those concrete examples to compare.

For related reading try the post on Operational Definitions.

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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