Abstract versus Concrete: How Different Communication Styles Might Be Holding You Back

Is your communication style inspiring people, or boring them? Learn what abstract and concrete communication styles are and why yours might be holding you back. 

When it comes to communication, the old adage of ‘it’s not what you say, but how you say it’ has never been more true. This difference can be noted even when it comes to basic phrases in procurement. 

For example: 

‘Our track record of sustainable procurement is abysmal. Can we really do better?” 


‘We can change, and we will. Our vision is to set the benchmark for sustainable procurement.’ 

Looking at these two sentences: they are chalk and cheese. Yet, the sustainability work within the procurement department could be exactly the same. 

With the ‘how’ of communication being critically important, a recent study showed that broadly, men and women have different styles of communication … and that this might be holding women back. 

How women and men differ in how they speak 

A recent study that analysed hundreds of thousands of speeches, articles, and interactions between men and women revealed an interesting finding: men tend to speak more abstractly than women. 

But what does this mean, and why does it matter? 

The research, published in the Rutgers Business Review, found that men, in general, used abstract language that included more verbs, was less tangible, and focused on the ‘why’. Women, on the other hand, used more concrete language: this contains more adjectives, focuses on the ‘how’, and can be experienced with the senses. 

How do concrete and abstract language compare?

Here is an example of ‘concrete’ versus ‘abstract’ language when discussing a common procurement objective: reducing costs. 

Concrete language 

“Our team will ask each and every one of our suppliers for an additional discount in order to meet the target.” 

Abstract language 

“Our team will relish the opportunity to strategically partner with our suppliers in an innovative way to ensure we reduce costs and, ultimately, not just meet but exceed company objectives.” 

Of the two statements above, which did you find the most inspiring? Which was the most impactful and powerful, and which gave you the most confidence? 

For most people, the answer is abstract language. 

It’s for this very reason that the fact women don’t use this type of language may be holding them back, as this type of language is most typically associated with visionary leaders and their ability to communicate and create change. 

Should women communicate using abstract language more? 

While it’s easy to conclude that abstract language is always better, this is most certainly not true.

Context matters. 

The key to effective communication isn’t just choosing a certain style, but adapting that style to who you are communicating with – and why. 

For example, in a procurement team meeting, when your team asks you for updates, it’s likely that they want a short, sharp, and more concrete reply that simply states the facts. 

Conversely, if you want to table a new initiative, whether this be a sustainability initiative or a new supplier you’d like to work with, more abstract language is likely necessary as, ultimately, you want to inspire and influence people. 

Which of the above examples did you find more efficient? Which of the two examples “cut to the chase” and made its point unambiguously?

How to communicate using abstract language 

Every day, the average person speaks at least 5000 words (with many thousands of these at work). 

For this reason, it’s difficult to change how you communicate. But if you want to try speaking more in the abstract, here are our tips: 

  • Plan how you will communicate any updates or new initiatives. Would your words inspire confidence in you? 
  • Check how many adjectives you are using. Could you include some more visionary words or descriptions? 
  • Are you talking about how you’ll achieve something? Could you also include some information on why it’s important? 

Have you considered whether you communicate more abstractly or concretely? What’s worked for you and what hasn’t worked? Let us know in the comments below.