How To Communicate Ideas That Are Understood: Stickiness Part III

When you convey an idea to an audience you want your audience to receive your message the way it was intended. You want them to understand your message. Otherwise you haven’t really communicated anything useful. If your audience doesn’t understand your idea, the fault lies with you. It’s up to you to make sure they understand what it is you’re trying to say.

Concrete tunnel, Nihon Oodori, Minato Mirai Line, Yokohama, Japan

If the responsibility lies with you there must be something you can do to help the clarity of your message. There is and it involves the use of concrete details to communicate your idea.

The last couple of weeks we’ve been talking about stickiness. We talked about finding the core of your idea to make it simple and how to attract and keep attention to it. Today we’ll look at how you can increase the likelihood that your audience will understand your idea as intended.

Once again we’ll start with a quick review of the 6 Key Variables of Sticky Ideas (SUCCESs) as put forth by the Heath Brothers in their book Made to Stick.

  • Simplicity – find the core
  • Unexpected – surprise gets attention and mystery keeps it
  • Concreteness – use details to help people understand and remember
  • Credibility – help people believe
  • Emotion – make people care
  • Story – get people to act

We’ve covered simplicity and the unexpected. Let’s now move on to concreteness.

Drawing for the Boy Who Cried Wolf


There was a boy tending the sheep who would continually go up to the embankment and shout, ‘Help, there’s a wolf!’ The farmers would all come running only to find out that what the boy said was not true. Then one day there really was a wolf but when the boy shouted, they didn’t believe him and no one came to his aid. The whole flock was eaten by the wolf.

I’m sure you’ve heard some variation of Aesop’s “The boy who cried wolf.” The moral of the story, the core of the idea, is that if you’re a liar no one will believe you when you’re telling the truth. Aesop’s fables have survived more than 2,500 years. Why?

Life is concrete, not abstract. Our day to day is filled with specific details not theoretical concepts. It’s easier for us to understand the concrete and as a consequence remember it.

The morals to Aesop’s fables are abstract ideas. The fables themselves are full of concrete details. They show us instead of telling us (PDF).


Movie Popcorn is Unhealthy

When Alan Silverman wanted to get the message out that movie popcorn cooked in coconut oil was unhealthy he didn’t point out that it contained 37 grams of saturated fat. Who knows how much that is or how much is ok?

Even if you know that 20 grams is the daily recommended limit, 37 grams is still an abstract concept that doesn’t really help you understand how unhealthy it is. You probably wouldn’t even remember the number 37 after hearing it, unless you had some affinity for the number.

Instead Silverman pointed out that one medium sized bag of movie popcorn (cooked in coconut oil) had the same amount of saturated fat as a bacon and egg breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings—combined.

Seeing them all placed side by side it would be very hard not to understand the message that movie popcorn was unhealthy and it would be hard to forget. It’s a simple message and it’s unexpected, but it’s also conveyed with concrete details instead of abstract statistics.

Concrete details are a common ground at a shared level of understanding. Most of us couldn’t explain why an airplane flies, yet most of us have probably been in an airplane. The former requires abstract knowledge, the latter is about concrete details.

This common ground is one reason metaphor, simile, and analogy work so well. They associate your idea with concrete details of something you already know.

A witch casting a spell on a mountainside

The Curse of Knowledge Revisited

Again the curse of knowledge rears it’s ugly head. The curse of knowledge leads us to being more abstract. We’re experts who understand the pattern and forget that our audience isn’t as familiar with the subject as we are.

An expert on nutrition hears 37 grams of saturated fat and immediately understands how much that is and how bad it is for someone to consume. The average person doesn’t.

Abstract concepts aren’t necessarily bad. You learned a lot of them on the way to becoming an expert. In fact you needed to learn those abstract concepts and patterns to become an expert. Your audience hasn’t. And it’s hard to communicate abstract concepts quickly and memorably. They’re a language that needs to be learned.

Concreteness builds the foundation that we use to build abstract concepts. We build the abstract on top of the concrete.

Having learned the abstract you can easily communicate to others who have also learned those same abstract concepts. If I say sidebar, you no doubt know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve designed them. You’ve built them. You understand what they are. Does your mom? How about your clients? Most of my clients will talk about a right or left column, not a sidebar.

In a court of law the word sidebar has a completely different meaning. That’s one problem with communicating through abstract concepts and language. We all interpret the abstract differently. We need to share a context, a frame of reference, before we’re talking about the same thing.

You need to communicate with language your audience understands if you want them to understand your message. That understood language is the language of the concrete detail. It’s a shared context. It’s the same frame of reference for all of us.

Remembering to use concrete details, words, and imagery is an easy way to break out of the curse of knowledge (PDF). Your audience isn’t familiar with 37 grams of fat, but it is familiar with a Big Mac and a bacon and egg breakfast. Breaking out of the curse of knowledge is about speaking in terms your audience is familiar with.

Concrete wall embosed with the Apple logo

Adding Concreteness to Your Design

To make your websites more concrete you want to use plain language and imagery. One reason product images are so important is they’re much more concrete than a description of that same product. Language by it’s very nature is abstract (PDF). Concrete is a universal language.

Some ideas for adding concreteness to your design.

  • Design and develop sites for personas
  • Use product images
  • Build demos
  • Add video and audio
  • Use text and imagery that appeals to the senses
  • Add textures

Are you selling software? Do you present screenshots or a video of the software being used? I’m amazed every time I find some application I’m interested in that doesn’t at the very least offer a screenshot. I can’t even tell you how many of those companies did not make a sale for lack of such a simple thing.

You make things more concrete by appealing to the senses. If it can be seen, heard, smelled, touched, or tasted, it’s concrete.

Don’t just show an image of an apple. Show an image with a bite taken out and with it’s juice dripping down the side. Make me taste how sweet that juice is. Make me feel the juice dripping down my chin.

The more senses you can appeal to the more concrete your images and words become.

Concrete is also specific people doing specific things. Make connections between your ideas and real people. Use examples and case studies. Create personas so you can know your audience instead of thinking of your audience as an abstract group of people.

When you write imagine writing to a specific person. When you design imagine how that specific person will react to your visual elements.

Making things concrete makes them tangible. You can hold tangible and run your fingers over it. You can’t run your fingers over an idea.

Closeup of concrete revealing abstract shapes


An important point in communication is being understood. When you’re trying to convey information you want the information received to be the same as what’s delivered. If you’re audience doesn’t understand you the fault is yours and not theirs.

Concrete details are more easily understood than abstract concepts. The concrete is the foundation of our knowledge. The abstract is built on top of the concrete. If you want to be understood be specific. Use details that appeal to the senses.

The curse of knowledge can lead us to forget that and try to communicate abstract concepts to those who haven’t yet built the concrete foundation. Remembering to use more concrete details allows us to communicate our ideas more effectively with a wider audience. Most people won’t have the same level of expertise as you do, particularly when it comes to a new idea.

Next week we’ll continue by looking at how to make sure people trust and believe you. We’ll talk about how to add credibility to your idea.

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  1. Steven, Very nice job of contextualizing and applying the concepts from Made to Stick in this series. I’ve recommended this post to novice academic writers who were having problems fleshing out the concepts they were working with. For some, concepts become comprehensible when they can see how they are related to concrete, observable details.

    • Thanks Greg and thanks for recommending the posts to others.

      It’s true about about making concepts comprehensible through concrete details. We all fall victim to the curse of knowledge. It’s hard not to. It’s too easy to forget how the simplest things weren’t always so simple.

      Focusing on the concrete really does force you to take a step back from the abstract.

  2. Hi Steve, I’m a graphic designer for an environmental regulatory agency. I stumbled upon your great information while searching for “illustrating abstract ideas.” What questions can I ask our scientists so that I can create illustrations understandable to the general public? I can only think of a couple such as “What can we compare that to that a child would understand?” “What are we really talking about here?” Any insights or direction would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

    • That’s a really interesting question Susan. Let’s see if I can think of an answer. 🙂

      Instead of trying to think of specific questions that would hopefully give you what you need, I would approach it a little differently.

      I’d first do whatever I could to understand myself. Even if I wasn’t an expert in the subject, I would trust if I spend time learning I’d be able to better understand some of the general concepts I was hoping to illustrate.

      Then I’d probably look for metaphors most people would understand to see if I could make a connection between scientific concept and metaphor. Think about the concept is saying at it’s core. Get rid of the details and think about what the concept is really communicating.

      Throughout all of this I’d be asking lots of questions, mostly designed to help me understand. I think if you could dive in and learn as much as you can it’ll become easier to illustrate the concepts for the general public.

      Hope that helps.

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