At the top of the abstraction ladder are obscure terms and concepts that leave you in a fog; at the bottom is concrete language that people can visualize.
You see a promo for a “virtual knowledge transfer event” and then realize it’s a webinar. You discover that a company promoting its “point-of-sale solutions” is really selling cash registers. Or you read about a Human Capital Metrics Conference and realize you have no idea what it is.
We have a difficult time with such wording because it sits high on what is called the abstraction ladder, sort of a sliding scale of vagueness. At the top are broad words that have many possible meanings, and then gradually, you move down toward greater clarity because words are more specific.
The abstraction ladder was developed by the late S.I. Hayakawa, a well-known professor of rhetoric at the University of California-Berkeley, a U.S. senator, and the author of the acclaimed book Language in Thought and Action.
When someone tells you that she just bought a new car, she is being abstract because you have lack details to know what she bought. There are hundreds of makes, models, and styles, yet we call them all “cars.” When your brain hears or reads “a car,” it distills the characteristics that are common to all the vehicles you know of as “cars” (four wheels, windshield, hood, trunk, etc.) and it assembles an image. It’s enough to give you a general understanding, but you are missing numerous details that you need to know exactly what she bought.
Working your way down the abstraction ladder, you finally see “a 2013 metallic-silver Toyota Camry XLE with ivory interior and a moon roof.” The image is much more visual than “a car.”
Near the bottom of the ladder is where you should spend most of your time, because precise details are at the heart of good writing. Readers don’t want a general sense of what you mean; they want to know precisely what you mean.