“Character is on the ballot this time around. The American character is on the ballot. Not what Donald Trump is spewing out…that’s not who we are as a nation. Everyone in this country is entitled to be treated with respect and dignity. Every single, solitary person has to [be] in a position that, in fact, we treat them with decency. It’s about fundamental basic decency…We have to restore America’s soul…We lead the world when we lead by example, not by our power. We, in fact, have to regain the respect of the world in order to be able to change things.”
— Excerpt from now-President Joe Biden’s closing statement
Democratic Presidential Debate, January 14, 2020
“Donald Trump thinks this is all about him. I think it’s about you…It is about your schools. It is about your lives and your future. So, if you want to do something about racial justice and immigration reform and climate change and gun safety, we need a candidate who is actually going to bring people with her. I have won every race, every place, every time. I have gotten the highest voter turnout in the country when I’ve led the ticket. I have passed more bills as the lead Democrat than anyone who’s in Congress that’s running for president.”
— Excerpt from Senator Amy Klobuchar’s closing statement
Democratic Presidential Debate, January 14, 2020
In January 2020, three weeks before the pivotal Iowa caucuses, six Democratic presidential candidates met on the debate stage in Des Moines. Given one minute to leave voters with a final closing statement, most strove to draw a sharp contrast between themselves and their would-be opponent in the general election, now-former President Donald Trump. But how they did this varied considerably. Now-President Joe Biden used broad, abstract language that emphasized his view of the big-picture stakes, speaking of “restoring America’s soul” and “leading by example, not by power.” In contrast, Senator Amy Klobuchar used concrete language that focused on specific issues such as health care and schools, emphasizing her pragmatic record of winning elections and passing bills.
This difference in communication style may seem superficial, but research conducted by ourselves and colleagues including Pamela Smith, Laura Huang, Gil Appel, Albert Han, and Andy Wu suggests that how concretely we communicate can have a major impact on how we’re perceived. In particular, our studies have shown that people tend to associate abstract language with power and leadership, and that in general, men tend to speak more abstractly than women — meaning that in some contexts, the way women are socialized to communicate may sometimes make them less likely to be seen as leaders.
Men Tend to Use More Abstract Language Than Women
To explore the relationship between gender and communication styles, we leveraged several established abstractness metrics, including a 40,000-word database that rates the concreteness of English words and a linguistic model that defines the relative abstractness of different parts of speech (for example, adjectives tend to be more abstract than verbs). Using these frameworks to measure linguistic abstractness in a variety of settings — including words spoken on the U.S. Congress floor from 2001 to 2017, more than 600,000 blog posts scraped from blogger.com in 2004, and experimental data from undergraduates and online crowdsourcing participants — we consistently found that men tended to use more abstract language, while women wrote and spoke more concretely.
Concrete Versus Abstract Language
Concrete language refers to ideas that can be experienced with the senses. Abstract language is less tangible and harder to visualize.
Concrete: Toni will open the conference with a five-minute speech.
Abstract: Toni’s opening will make the audience excited about the conference.
Concrete language tends to use more verbs, while abstract language uses more adjectives.
Concrete: Mojo Juice is made only from fruit juice and contains no preservatives.
Abstract: Mojo Juice is 100% juice and preservative free.
Concrete language focuses on how. Abstract language focuses on why.
Concrete: Our new initiative will bring in additional business by adding a complementary suite of services to our core offering.
Abstract: Our new initiative will launch us into the future and make the company more innovative and prosperous.
We also saw this pattern emerge in a series of field studies. We analyzed the speech patterns of entrepreneurs pitching their startups to investors, and again found that male founders tended to speak more abstractly, using more big-picture language, while female founders described specific actions and plans for how they would build their businesses. For example, one female founder introduced her startup as follows:
“[Our company] is moving quickly to launch. In the near term, we are focused on negotiating for technology partnerships and testing market demand. We plan to spend the summer in product development in order to pilot the program at universities in the fall and iterate for a holiday launch.”
In contrast, male entrepreneurs tended to focus on the vision driving their businesses:
“In today’s information age it is surprising that career planning is a very difficult process for most of us. Even at reputed schools, students are pushed into set jobs and there is no data about what lies ahead. Professional networking is an ineffective process and knowledge discovery is limited to what your peers know.”
It’s important to note that depending on the context, either of these communication styles can be effective. But when it comes to perceptions of power and leadership ability, abstract language can often be advantageous.
Abstract Language Conveys Power and Vision
For example, in one experiment, we showed participants two statements about a fictional juice product. The statements conveyed similar information, but we designed one to be more abstract by including more adjectives (e.g., “Mojo Juice is 100% juice and preservative free”), while the other was designed to be more concrete by including more verbs (e.g., “Mojo Juice is made only from fruit juice and contains no preservatives”). We then asked the participants to share their impressions of the people who had made these statements, and they consistently assumed that the abstract speaker was likely more powerful than the concrete one. They also thought that the abstract speaker would be a better fit for a manager role, while the concrete speaker would be a better fit for a worker role, and when asked who they would choose to fill a CEO role, 82% opted for the abstract speaker.
We found similar effects in our field studies. Investors told us that entrepreneurs who used abstract language seemed to have “large growth potential” and “highly-scalable…long-term revenue potential,” while founders who used concrete language were seen as less oriented toward long-term growth, ultimately making them less likely to receive funding.
Interestingly, across these studies, participants did not generally view a more abstract speaking style as an indicator of competence. They did, however, see abstract speech as signaling two key capabilities that prior research has shown to be associated with perceptions of power and leadership: big-picture thinking and decisiveness. When someone uses abstract language, it suggests that they have a more removed perspective and are distanced from everyday minutia, leading people to assume that they must hold substantial power. In addition, moving beyond concrete facts to provide an interpretation of what those facts mean and why they matter suggests a willingness to make the important decisions and judgments required of leaders.
Adapt Your Communication Style to the Context
While these findings may seem like a condemnation of concrete communication, the reality is that both concrete and abstract styles have value. The key for men and women alike is knowing when to deploy them.
Earlier in your career, when the focus tends to be more on detail-oriented execution, concrete communication can be highly effective. But as you advance and increasingly delegate these tasks to others, strategic thinking and visioning often become more important, and thus abstract language may serve you better. This means taking the time to explain not just what you will do, but why it must be done. Think carefully about what details need to be included and which can be left out, look for opportunities to replace tangible verbs with less-tangible adjectives, and find ways to incorporate more abstract language that goes beyond the facts toward your larger purpose and vision.
That said, there are also situations in which even senior leaders may benefit from concrete speech. Concrete language can help build psychological closeness and trust, and it can reassure people in the face of risk or uncertainty. For example, managers may find concrete speech helpful in building a sense of connectedness on their teams, especially when working remotely. Other research has found that crowdfunding campaigns are more successful when entrepreneurs use concrete language, suggesting that fostering trust and connection may sometimes be more important than demonstrating power and decisiveness. In contexts like these, leaders should offer tactical guidance on how to execute a vision, provide specific details, and discuss action plans using clear, vivid words that are easy for listeners to visualize.
Of course, changing your natural speech to be more abstract or concrete can be challenging, especially if you aren’t used to strategically modifying your speaking style. If you’re struggling to adapt your spoken language, reviewing your written communications can be a helpful way to identify your (often subconscious) communication patterns and determine whether a different approach may be beneficial.
Check Your Communication Biases
Ultimately, while leaders may benefit from adapting their communication style to the context, it’s also critical for all of us (especially those of us in positions of power) to be aware of our biases as listeners. Don’t let perceptions about style crowd out the substance of what is being said — and the capabilities of the person saying it.
In other words, just because someone communicates more concretely does not mean they are less able to think abstractly or strategically. For many women, both personal experience and deeply ingrained social norms have necessitated a focus on demonstrating competency through execution and attention to detail, making them more likely to default to concrete speech. But using concrete language does not indicate a lack of leadership skills. When evaluating someone’s leadership potential, it’s vital to acknowledge this bias for abstract communication and take proactive steps to level the playing field.
One way to do this is to explicitly encourage both abstract and concrete speech. Managers and investors can provide templates or prompts that invite presenters to share an executive summary or vision statement before diving into the details. In job interviews or political debates, interviewers can intentionally both ask candidates to share their big picture visions and press them to provide specific details. After all, women may tend to focus on the how, and men on the why — but effective leaders must be able to articulate both.
When someone gives a speech, leads a meeting, or sends you an email, you probably don’t consciously think much about how abstract their language is. But our research suggests that this subtle difference in communication style can substantially impact how people are perceived. Moreover, this difference tends to correlate with gender, meaning that we’re more likely to associate men’s speech patterns with leadership, and thus more likely to see men as potential leaders. To encourage everyone to reach their leadership potential, we must acknowledge that this bias exists, and ensure that how someone speaks doesn’t drown out what they’re saying.
by Cheryl Wakslak and Priyanka Joshi
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