You undoubtedly go through this, too. A few times a month you gather up the bills coming due and write checks or pay them online.
As I was doing some bill payments recently, I noticed the tactic one company uses to get its customers to pay by the due date. It was very simple: "If you pay by this date, pay this amount. If you pay after this date, pay this amount."
Now, this was a small bill so the penalty for paying beyond the due date was just a matter of a few pennies, but still, I got the point.
While other companies might list the late charge in percentage terms, this one wisely adopted the dollars and cents approach.
We see here a case in which a company crosses the sometimes critical divide between the abstract and the concrete. Listing a percentage fee shows the penalty in abstract terms. Listing it in dollars and cents shows the penalty in concrete terms.
I don't know about you, but I'm certainly more sensitive to the dollars and cents than to a percentage, if I'm late making my payment. How about you: would you feel more motivated to pay on time if it costs $1.17 or if it costs 2.5% per month?
As communicators, we should remain alert to the differences between the abstract and the concrete. It's sometimes a subtle difference, but a critical one.
Here are a couple of applications of these differences:
When you give instructions, try to work on the concrete side of the abstract-concrete continuum. For example, if you ask a subordinate to carry out a task, then provide details and specifics. In many cases, this might be summed up with four of the five Ws: Who, What, Where, and When, as well as How (we'll get the fifth W in a moment).
Or, if you're selling, aim to be more concrete than abstract. For example, I've been writing short ads for my book about newsletters. In writing them, I've found that "Communicating for Results" isn't enough by itself -- I need to spell out what those results might be (such as more sales, greater employee retention, and better membership renewal ratios).
On the other hand, if you want to provide context, you might find it more productive to move more toward the abstract end of the abstract-concrete continuum. For example, if you're trying to explain a new strategic direction for your organization, you might refer to conceptual issues like positioning and competitive advantage. This, you'll find, is where Why? -- the fifth W -- fits rather nicely.
In a sales situation, you may want to get a prospect to envision a new and better future. In that case, too, you would emphasize the abstract, rather than the concrete. For example, if you're selling a retirement fund, you would likely emphasize the idea of spending more time on tropical islands or with family, rather than going into actuarial details.
Finally, remember that abstract and concrete represent two ends of a continuum, and you can choose any point between them.
About The Author
Robert F. Abbott, the author of A Manager's Guide to Newsletters: Communicating for Results, writes about business communication issues in the free online ezine, Abbott's Communication Letter http://www.abbottletter.com; firstname.lastname@example.org