April 2, 2012 Aesop's Fables

I am always on the lookout for a fresh and unique way of describing something, especially when it can take it from abstract to concrete. Here is one from today’s New York Times:

“The trigger of a semiautomatic pistol is pulled, and a firing pin in the back of the gun darts forward, slamming into the primer on the rear of the cartridge holding the bullet and causing a small explosion. This ignites the gunpowder in the cartridge, blasting the bullet out of the barrel with tens of thousands of pounds of pressure. That blast goes both ways, driving the left-behind shell casing backward hard enough to leave an impression from the inside of the gun on the shiny brass. The pistol ejects the casing, hot and spinning.”

This is how you elevate the mechanical function of a gun from boring to interesting and make it stick in your audience’s mind. Much of our language is abstract, but life is concrete. We need to turn our messages into concrete examples that the audience can easily grasp and remember. It is the difference between an engineer’s schematic and a working model.

My favorite example of this is the fox and the grapes from Aesop’s Fables. We all remember the story about the fox futilely jumping to get the grapes and when he gives up says they were sour anyway. All one has to say is “sour grapes” and we immediately get the point. This story is still with us after 2600 years. If Aesop instead had said, “Don’t be a jerk when you don’t get what you want,” no one would have remembered it. That is the power of a vivid concrete image. Our brains are wired to retain concrete images.

The moral of this story is to turn your message into something concrete.