We use examples to bring our content to life and connect it to the real world. Examples often demonstrate how the concepts we write about can be applied. Such examples will help our audience take our ideas and use them. In other cases, we might use examples to reaffirm our ideas and prove that someone actually applied them. And occasionally, we provide an example to repeat our idea using different words and contexts.
I used to think I had to come up with perfect examples to accompany my ideas. I wanted the examples I used to cover the entire scope of the idea I was writing about. I wanted them to match the concept without any reservations. I was searching for bulletproof examples that would prove I was right.
But I was wrong.
We often use abstraction and generalization when we model a challenge or a solution. Our ideas can rarely cover every nuance, every variant, and every case. Life, on the other hand, is not sterile. A real-world case will rarely fit our mental model neatly. We can try covering up this fact and simplifying the example, but that won’t make it perfect. So we are stuck with less-than-perfect examples, and I, for one, learned to appreciate the value in this imperfection.
Building nuance into an abstract model is not trivial. But since real-world examples are almost always nuanced, we can use them to add depth and subtly to the idea we write about.
A nuanced example might highlight some limitations in your model, which will be well appreciated by your audience for being honest. However, a subtle example will often show your audience how your model should be adapted to be useful for their real-world challenges. You cannot cover each and every case in your text, but acknowledging that, and demonstrating how your model can be reshaped to cover different scenarios, will reassure your audience that it is not too good to be true.
In the real world, there are often competing forces, considerations, and goals. The simplified model that is the core of our idea usually focuses on one such aspect. When describing it as an abstract concept, we deliberately ignore many other forces. An imperfect example can bring some of them back into the picture and trigger a discussion on tradeoffs and balances.
A good example, in that sense, is richer than the abstract model. It cannot be understood without describing first your idea in an ideal setup, but introducing the real-world complexity of mixing two ideas, each pulling in a different direction, brings your vision closer to your audience’s experience.
Many models are not binary and have more than two primary states: applied or not applied. Implementation is often a spectrum in which one can use the model in various degrees. Once again, an example can demonstrate that clearly by bringing your model closer to the real world.
For example, my model for developing creativity, The Creativity Operating System, includes dozen of practices that together create a better setup for leading a creative life. But that does not mean all practices can be implemented in one day. Nor does it imply that every instance of creativity relies on all practices. By providing a variety of imperfect examples, my audience can get a sense of how they can gradually evolve and adopt more practices with time.
Imperfect examples are thought-provoking. They invite your audience to play with your ideas, challenge them, and develop their own way of adapting your model. Imperfect examples kick off a discussion between you and your audience, even if that discussion happens just in their minds.
The quality of your content and its impact should not be measured by how many people fully adopt your ideas. Impactful content creates a dialogue — a relationship between you and your audience. When you use real-world examples that don’t perfectly prove your model, you invite your audience to think about your ideas more deeply. That is the essence of Generative Communication.