The Specific is Universal

By R.L. Howser

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado!
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi!
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

What’s the best way to reach the widest possible audience with your words?

Most speakers seem to assume that casting a wider net will increase their catch. They speak in generalities and abstractions so the audience can take the ideas and apply them to their own specific cases.

They speak of committed monogamous relationships, instead of telling us a tale of two lovers. They describe methods of maximizing production efficiency, instead of telling us specifically how we can work smarter. They announce the necessity of off-shoring certain administrative management tasks, instead telling us who, exactly, is going to be let go.

Sometimes, of course, they are using euphemisms to avoid taking responsibility for saying what they really mean. Sometimes, their purpose is to cover their own a—-, by trotting out every possible argument or forecast.

Often though, I think they speak in generalities out of a well-meaning, but misguided, fear that the more specific they are, the more of their audience they will exclude.

They’re afraid if they speak of one specific industry, those in other industries won’t find it relevant. They’re afraid if they outline one specific problem, some who don’t suffer from that will tune them out. They’re afraid that describing a limited and specific situation won’t interest the vast majority of the audience, who may not have experienced that situation and probably never will.

In fact, the opposite is true. The more specific and concrete you are with your words and examples, the more relatable your message will be to your audience.

A single case study will often illuminate the solution to a problem better than reams of business school theories. A single personal story is often more convincing than the most logical and well-supported, but abstract, argument. A single clear example will often stick better in your audience’s minds than a dozen that cover every possible permutation of the issue.

The specifics of the case are generally not the point of what you are saying. It is the more general principles and practices that those specifics illustrate that are the message of your speech or presentation. The more specific and concrete your examples are, the better your audience will understand, relate to and remember that message.

Of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t saying that freedom should only ring from Colorado’s Rockies or California’s slopes. He wasn’t saying that freedom should only ring from Stone Mountain or Lookout Mountain. He wasn’t saying that freedom should only ring from the hills and molehills of Mississippi, or even just from the mountains.

He was using those specific locations, each with its own historic and cultural overtones, to say that freedom should ring everywhere.

The message is universal, but it’s the specifics that make it concrete and relatable.

About the Author:

R.L. Howser  is a speaker, writer, university professor and journalist with more than 30 years of experience as a professional communicator. He teaches presentation and communications skills at Tokyo University of Science (Tokyo Rika Daigakku), Hosei University and the Kenichi Ohmae Graduate School of Business. R.L. also was the 2010 Toastmasters Japan Champion of Public Speaking. For more from his blog, Presentation Dynamics, visit

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