To create strong memories, use concrete language

It’s easier for consumers to form associations with a brand if they can visualise the message it communicates. In this excerpt from his latest book The Illusion of Choice, Richard Shotton explains there are many ways to put that into action.

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Soon after you arrive at work, you have a meeting in the boardroom with potential clients.

When you enter, the room is full. Your boss is struggling valiantly to load up the slides. So, to fill the time, you introduce yourself to everyone there, vigorously shaking hands and making small talk.

When you introduce yourself to the final client, she reminds you that you’ve met before.

Twice. You splutter an apology.

You shouldn’t feel embarrassed about forgetting a face. You’re not alone; the vast majority of information we take in is quickly forgotten.

In fact, the fallibility of memory is perhaps the oldest finding in psychology, with studies stretching as far back as 1885 and the work of the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. He coined the term ‘the forgetting curve’ to describe the rate at which we forget information. It tends to follow a predictable pattern: the biggest drop in retention happens soon after we learn new facts. Over time, more is forgotten, but at a slower rate.

Even though the forgetting curve was discovered more than 100 years ago, it still occurs today. Jaap Murre, from the University of Amsterdam, reran Ebbinghaus’s experiments in 2015 and found similar results.

But Ebbinghaus didn’t just describe our forgetfulness, he also came up with tactics to overcome it. Most notably, he discovered that the rate of forgetting can be slowed by rereading the material at regular intervals. But repetition, while effective, is an expensive tactic for marketers. Luckily, there are other, less costly, findings from behavioural science that can aid memory.

Repetition, while effective, is an expensive tactic for marketers. Luckily, there are other, less costly, findings from behavioural science that can aid memory.

However, before we discuss the research let’s do a little exercise. I’ve put together a list of two-word phrases. Please read through them slowly, and then cover them up:

  • square door
  • impossible amount
  • rusty engine
  • better excuse
  • flaming forest
  • apparent fact
  • muscular gentleman
  • common fate
  • white horse
  • subtle fault

Now, try writing down as many as possible. There’s no rush, I’ll wait…

Which words did you recall? My bet is that you found it easiest to bring to mind concrete phrases, those describing things that exist physically, like ‘square door’ and ‘muscular gentleman’. In contrast, the abstract ones, like ‘common fate’ or ‘better excuse’, most likely slipped your mind.

If that’s true, your experience is typical according to Ian Begg, a psychologist at the University of Western Ontario. In 1972 he recruited 25 students and read them a list of 20 two-word phrases, including the ones you’ve just read. He then asked the subjects to recall as many as they could.

The results were stark. People remembered 9% of the abstract words and 36% of the concrete words. A striking four-fold difference.

The scale of Begg’s findings is impressive, but you might have concerns about its validity from a commercial perspective. First, the sample: 25 students is a worryingly small number of potentially unrepresentative people.

Second, the word choice: phrases like ‘rusty engine’ and ‘muscular gentleman’ don’t often appear in advertising (not before the watershed anyway).

Finally, the timings: in Begg’s experiment he asked people to recall the terms immediately after he read them out. That’s interesting, but brands normally need messages to be remembered for substantially longer.

Because of these flaws, in 2021 Leo Burnett’s head of insight and effectiveness Mike Treharne and I reran Begg’s study with a few tweaks. We began by recruiting a more robust 425-strong sample. We then gave our subjects a list of 10 phrases, some abstract and some concrete. All of the phrases could feasibly appear in commercial communications. Some of the phrases were concrete, such as:

  • fast car
  • skinny jeans
  • cashew nut
  • money in your pocket
  • happy hens

Others were abstract, such as:

  • innovative quality
  • trusted provenance
  • central purpose
  • wholesome nutrition
  • ethical vision

Finally, we tweaked the timings. Instead of asking people to recall the phrases immediately after hearing them, we introduced a five-minute delay. That’s not as long as ads need to be remembered, but it’s a step closer to reality.

The results were even more pronounced than in the original study. Participants remembered 6.7% of the concrete phrases, but just 0.7% of the abstract ones. That’s a tenfold difference. The findings about concreteness aren’t just a quirk of Begg’s study.

These lab studies are also supported by real-world evidence. The book Made to Stick describes analysis of ancient stories conducted by Michael Havelock, a classicist at Yale. Havelock has shown that stories that have been passed down by word of mouth, such as the Odyssey and the Iliad, have plenty of concrete words but few abstractions. His argument is that when the tales were recounted, the concrete parts were remembered while the abstractions were forgotten and disappeared.

Is sight the ‘keenest of senses’?

But what explains the difference in memorability between these styles of communicating? Begg suggests that concrete phrases are stickier because they can be visualised.

This idea has long roots. Returning to the classical world, the Roman orator Cicero said in 55 BC: “The keenest of all our senses is the sense of sight, and consequently perceptions received by the ears or from other sources can most easily be remembered if they are conveyed to our minds by the mediation of vision.”

So Cicero, like Begg, suggests that when we are exposed to an idea, we have better recall if we’re able to picture an image in our mind’s eye.

Let’s look at how concreteness can work for you.

How can you apply this bias?

1. Mind your language

The study Treharne and I conducted showed a huge swing in recall – nearly a tenfold difference. Considering many studies into other biases record an effect of 10% or 20%, it’s important to make sure you apply this idea rather than just read about it.

Luckily, applying it is simple: whenever possible, strip your copy of abstract language and replace it with concrete terminology.

If that recommendation is unclear, let me give you an example. Think about Apple’s early iPod advertising. While other MP3 players of the day trumpeted their storage size in megabytes, Apple made it real with ‘1,000 songs in your pocket’. The consumer was able to picture the device in their jeans pocket, easily storing all their favourite tunes. That act of visualisation helped cement the claim in the mind.

Apple’s preference for concrete language is rare. Far too many brands are attracted to vague abstractions, like Rightmove’s ‘Find Your Happy’ or Hitachi’s ‘Inspire the next’.

However, the popularity of forgettable abstractions in copy is an opportunity for you. A simple copy tweak can make your brand more memorable than most of the competition.

2. Help your customer imagine using your product

Using language that can be pictured makes your writing more memorable. But there are added benefits to encouraging potential customers to visualise using your product.

In 2011, Ryan Elder from Brigham Young University and Aradhna Krishna from the University of Michigan conducted a study into this idea, or what they called ‘perceptual fluency’.

The researchers showed 321 participants an ad featuring a delicious-looking slice of apple pie, with a fork on either the left or the right side of the plate. Participants were then asked whether they were left- or right-handed, and to indicate their purchase Intent.

When handedness matched the orientation of the cutlery – that is when right-handed people saw the fork placed on the right side – participants had 35% higher purchase intentions towards the cake. The authors concluded that lining up the fork in a manner that was natural for the viewer encouraged them to imagine eating it, and the pleasure this gave boosted purchase intent.

So, wherever possible help your customer imagine using your product – whether that’s through tweaks to your imagery, language or even using more high-tech approaches like augmented reality.

However, as with all studies there are nuances. In 2011, Elder conducted a similar experiment with a series of soup ads. This time though he varied the attractiveness of the dish: some people saw an appealing flavour (Asiago cheese and tomato), whereas others saw an unpleasant one (cottage cheese and tomato).

When he made it easier to imagine tasting the soup (he used the same mechanic he used with the apple pie, but this time with spoons rather than forks) he saw an interesting result. If the product was desirable the purchase intent went up by 24% but, if it was undesirable, intent dropped by 26%.

It seems that perceptual fluency, like the illusion of effort, has a multiplicative effect – easily imagining trying the pleasant-sounding soup made it even more desirable. But imagining sampling the unpleasant soup made it even less desirable.

3. Keep it simple, stupid

Another benefit of using concrete language is that it tends to be simple. And simple language reflects well on the communicator.

Evidence for this idea comes from the Princeton psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer in a paper that has possibly the best ever title: ‘Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly’.

In this study, participants read samples of text including graduate school applications, sociology dissertation abstracts and translations of a work of Descartes. Some participants read the original version, which was written in a verbose, jargon-filled style, while others were given an edited version where the unnecessarily complex words had been switched for simpler alternatives.

Finally, the psychologist asked the participants to rate the intelligence of the authors. Those who read the simplified version scored the authors 10% higher than those who read the more complex original text.

This finding is valuable as it runs counter to much brand behaviour. According to the language consultancy Linguabrand, the average reading age of the UK population is 13.5, but the average reading age of brand websites is 17.5. This, they argue, isn’t just a factor of the subject matter – after all, the Financial Times communicates far more complex matters but at an average reading age of 16. Instead, it’s explained by a lingering misapprehension: too many professionals believe complexity signals intelligence. Unfortunately, the evidence points in the opposite direction.

So, even if you can’t use concrete words, at least keep the abstractions as simple as possible. You’ll be in good company. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was an advocate of simplicity. He famously said: “One should use common words to say uncommon things.”

4. Stories over statistics

There’s evidence that you can also apply the principle of concreteness by prioritising stories over statistics. In 2007 Deborah Small, George Loewenstein and Paul Slovic investigated how communications could be adapted to boost charitable giving. In particular, they were

interested in whether tales about individual suffering were more motivating than messages describing a tragedy in statistical terms.

The psychologists paid 121 people $5 to take part in the experiment. As part of the study the participants read a description of food shortages in Africa.

Some read a passage which described the victims in statistical terms (eg “Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than three million children…”). Others were given a story that focused on an individual (eg “Any money that you donate will go to Rokia, a seven-year-old girl from Mali, Africa. Rokia is desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger or even starvation…”).

At the end of the experiment the participants had the option to donate some of their fee to a charity, Save the Children.

Those who had read about the individual’s story donated $2.83 on average, more than double the $1.17 given by those who had heard the statistics. The psychologists termed this the ‘identifiable victim effect’.

These findings relate to the Begg study. Statistics often leave an audience unmoved because they are hard to relate to. It’s impossible to imagine 3 million people. Whereas when we think of Rokia an image springs to mind immediately. We can relate to the human-sized scale of a single victim, and that engenders more emotion and bigger donations.

This insight was recognised by Stalin, who supposedly remarked with his typical savagery: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”

So, where possible, shun statistics and make your tale relatable on a human level.

5. Check your expertise

All these studies raise a question: why don’t more brands use concrete language?

Perhaps because marketers are experts in their category.

Whether it’s cars or chocolate bars, the marketers and agency team will be immersed in the details of the business. That’s a problem, according to Chip and Dan Heath in their book Made to Stick: “The difference between an expert and a novice is the ability to think abstractly. New jurors are struck by the lawyer’s personalities and factual details and courtroom rituals. Meanwhile, judges weigh the current case against the abstract lessons of past cases and legal precedent.”

So remember that your expertise might make it hard to spot that you’re slipping into abstractions. What appears easily understandable, even visualisable, to you, might not be to your customer – who is less of a category expert.

The principle of concreteness should be of interest to most marketers. It’s a simple idea to apply and one which can boost the effectiveness of your copy. After all, you’ll be basing your work on sound psychological principles, rather than just intuition.

But behavioural science is about more than copy. There are literally thousands of experiments identified by researchers. In my new book, The Illusion of Choice, I’ve identified the 16-and-a-half most relevant themes for marketers. Why not see which ones you can apply to your business?

This is an extract adapted from The Illusion of Choice by Richard Shotton.

Richard Shotton is the author of The Choice Factory, a book about applying behavioural science to marketing that’s available in 13 languages. His new book on the topic, The Illusion of Choice, is on sale now.



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