Although metaphorically you can taste success or smell defeat, you can't physically do either. Both "success" and "defeat" are abstract words and so refer to the intangible—feelings or emotions, characteristics or qualities, concepts and conditions, values, ideas. What such words refer to we know through the intellect, through the mind, not through our senses.

Abstract words are general and even vague at times, but they are necessary. We need them to communicate complex ideas. Take "loyalty," for instance, a word we can use to designate a feeling toward something as large as our homeland or as small as our preferred brand of shampoo. The word "loyalty" points to a condition that most of us have felt but can simultaneously be as individual as the person feeling it. That's why in presentations, in documents, and even in conversations, abstract words demand examples, illustrations, and descriptions.

Words such as these are abstract:

  • Perseverance
  • Creativity
  • Innovation
  • Honesty
  • Certainty

In the examples, illustrations, and descriptions we use to clarify or explain an abstraction, however, we need concrete words, words that denote something we know through our senses, something we can taste, hear, see, smell, or touch. Such words are as concrete as that slab on which you park your car. They connect us to the immediate, physical world across time and place; they shape and record our experience and provide a way of sharing it with others. And although people across the globe may experience that fireball in the sky differently, "sun" in any language refers to a specific thing that we perceive sensorily.

Here are a few other concrete words:

  • Thunder
  • Choir
  • Bronze
  • Lavender
  • Sour


Choose to use concrete words in the examples you provide to delineate abstract words. Doing so not only helps your audience grasp your basic meaning but its context and some of its nuances. Through concrete examples you can move "loyalty" from the conceptual (an attachment or allegiance to someone or something) to the tangible (a consumer plucking that red and silver bottle of shampoo off the drugstore shelf each time the last bottle has emptied).

Tell stories. When you present the results of research with a focus group or summaries of views expressed during a team meeting, for example, consider shaping a narrative from participant comments. But pull into that narrative not only the points you want to highlight but the setting or manner in which they occurred or some characteristics of the person who made them.

  • Explaining the consensus of a focus group, a facilitator might say something like, "The moment Option 3 appeared on the screen, the woman nearest the front wrinkled up her nose and shook her head. The man to her right squinted, and then frowned. During the discussion that followed, these two, both Millennials, one in the travel industry and the other in IT, expressed well the group's objections to the third option."
  • Near the end of a project kickoff meeting, the team leader summarized suggestions made for an infographic in development. "What we'd like then, is to include various elements of popular culture. More specifically, iconic TV comedies such as "All in the Family" and "Laugh-In" from the late 60s and early 70s; for rock music, The Supremes, Beatles, and Bob Dylan. Other categories to explore—fashion and food."

A few concrete words can shed the light of comprehension on an abstraction. That's where it's needed most.