There are few skills as crucial in regards to communication as the ability to hit the right level of abstraction. No matter if you write a status report, participate in a meeting or just call somebody, hitting the right level of abstraction will make all the difference between succeeding and failing at making yourself understood.
Tom Bartel wrote a great piece about it over at his blog. Check it out for plenty of hands on examples, I decided to sum up my key insights and inspirations from reading it below.
Challenges in Communication
Communication is all about information, too be more precise, the right amount of information. We typically regulate this in our communication through levels of abstraction. Too much or too little information will harm your attempt at making yourself understood. If your communication is under-abstract, if there is too much information, your audience will feel overwhelmed by details and get lost. If your communication is over-abstract, if there is too little information, your audience will miss crucial points you are trying to convey and as a result get lost as well.
Consider the Context
The right level of abstraction for a given conversation depends on context. That is the knowledge your audience already has in regards to your topic. Ask yourself, what is your audiences background? Are you among equals? Or do you have to “translate” for a variety of professions? Are they senior staff or juniors just starting out? How is your audience involved in the matter at hand? Are they a team member, high level stakeholder or a random stranger? Have you had a conversation about this before, or not?
While a conscious approach to communication will only sometimes make the difference between a successful or a failed exchange, it will always make the difference between a good and a bad conversation. Making a deliberate effort adapting to your audience and context will greatly ease whatever goal you want to achieve.
Image: Travellers at Rest, Adriaen van Ostade, 1671, Rijksmuseum