Don't worry: This isn't political.

And I'm not trying to sell you anything.

But I do want to pitch you on a simple premise that, to communicate effectively to anyone (customers, constituents, employees, vendors, minions), you need to be tangible, specific and concrete.

You know--concrete, like a wall. You've probably noticed that that wall--the one that President Trump has promised to build on the southwestern border to control the flow of immigrants--has been in the news lately.

But, whether you're for it or against it, what makes that wall such a powerful idea? A recent New York Times article provides a telling insight.

First the article reveals that the wall began as a way to remind candidate Trump to talk about immigration while campaigning. The Times quotes Sam Nunberg, one of Mr. Trump's early political advisers, who recalls he said, "How do we get him to continue to talk about immigration?" We're going to get him to talk about how he's going to build a wall."

The simplicity of the concept made it a powerful sales pitch on the campaign trail. "It's a four-letter thing," said Michael D'Antonio, a biographer of Mr. Trump. "It's an idea that can be expressed in a single word, and I think that has great appeal to him as a marketer."

The President is right: The wall is a powerful concept--for the same reason that infomercials are so addictive. But before we get to our featured product of the day (It steams! It grills! It makes dinner fast!), let's explore why tangible trumps (sorry, couldn't help myself) abstract every time.

Christopher Locke, author of Gonzo Marketing, writes that marketers need to make communication very, very specific because vague and conceptual don't cut it. You can't count on your audience to connect the dots, because they won't.

Locke writes that "business in general and marketing in particular seem to assume we know what they mean when they sling around terms like value, brand and positioning and equate the resulting blur of vague ideas to something we might actually care about."

These terms (and others like quality, innovation or cost-efficiency) are too squishy to be compelling. That's why the best way to cut through abstraction is to use something really simple to capture what you want to convey: A dog. A girl. Or a wall.

If, however, your concept is more complicated, you need to rely on something called "thick description." That was the term used in the 1970s by anthropologist Clifford Geertz to address a challenge he had when trying to write about the societies he studied. Rather than using complicated language, Geertz told stories that gave insights into how people in a society interacted. So he relayed the tale of how sheep farmers negotiated, or how a tribal leader meted out punishments for crimes.

As Christopher Locke explains, "thick description . . . comes closer to what's actually going on than would 'thin description'--the kind of succinct clear-cut abstraction that appears perfectly plausible, but totally distorts reality."

Putting it into practice

Enough with the explanations, how do you apply this to the communication you create? Start by engaging the senses: Create communication that your audience can see, hear, smell, taste and touch.

The truth is that we all have a multiplex in our heads, ready to play movies 24/7--when we're asleep, for sure, or even when we're fully conscious.

And your brain's amazing "I can picture it" imagination applies to not just sight and hearing, but to all five senses. You can, in an instant, vividly recall the scent of lemons being squeezed or popcorn popping, the taste of pepperoni pizza or bubblegum, the sensation of your finger rubbing across sandpaper or an ice cube on your hot neck.

The point is that human beings may have an evolved brain, but we're wired to our senses, irresistibly drawn to what we can see, hear, smell, taste or touch.

Amazo-matic

And that's where infomercials come in. I took a flight the other day, and on the screen in front of my seat was playing a long infomercial for the Power Smokeless Grill. I didn't even have to plug in my headphones to be drawn in. There was presenter Eric Theiss, famous for his incredible how-does-he-get-it-to-stay-like-that hairstyle, extolling the virtues of the grill:

  • Turn Your Indoor Tabletop into A Grill!
  • The Grill's Built-in Smoke Extracting Fan Virtually Reduces All Hot, Smoky Air!
  • Drip Tray Catches Excess Fat!

But it wasn't the rhetoric that made it work; it was the way the infomercial engaged your senses. Now Eric and his sidekick were making fabulous lemony salmon. Next came grilled shrimp. Pancakes! Omelettes! Juicy steaks!

You could see the steam rising from the hot food and practically taste the delicious results. Infomercials are so effective because they promise that you'll be able to accomplish something specific. Cook dinner fast! Feed your family! Clean up in minutes!

So what can we learn from the wall and the infomercial? Three things:

  • Avoid abstractions and vague concepts.
  • Appeal to the senses by using specific descriptions to help your audience connect by seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching.
  • Don't be afraid to make your communication just a little longer to make your communication more tangible.

(But wait! There's more! As a special bonus, you will receive at no additional charge, other blogs that help communicate effectively. Visit my landing page right away so you don't forget!)

Published on: Jan 8, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.