'Abstract' speakers are more frequently viewed as leaders; But women speak more concretely: study

Female leaders are more likely to focus on the "how" of problem-solving while male leaders are more likely to focus on the "why" — and people are more likely to associate "why" speech with leaders, according to research analyzed in Harvard Business Review Dec. 2. 

The article was written by Cheryl Wakslak, associate professor of management and organization at Los Angeles-based University of Southern California's business school and Priyanka Joshi, PhD, assistant professor at San Francisco University's business school. The authors and their colleagues collaborated on multiple studies to examine the differences in concrete and abstract language, as well as public perception of each. In one study, they leveraged a 40,000 word database to analyze words spoken in different locations, such as the congressional floor and online blog posts. In another series of field studies, they examined how entrepreneurs pitched their startups to investors. 

Their research showed that abstract language is more often associated with power and leadership, and men are more likely to speak abstractly than women. In one study, 82 percent of people said they were more likely to choose an abstract speaker for a CEO role than a concrete speaker. 

People tend to see abstract speech as a sign of "big picture" thinking and decisiveness — both traits they attribute to leaders, according to the authors. Abstract language also suggests that the speaker is more removed from the details of everyday life, and is thus in a more powerful position. 

"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," the authors wrote. 

However, concrete language has its benefits in certain settings, according to the authors. It can be reassuring in uncertain times and helps build trust. 

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