This ONE – Specificity in action: From Drama Class to Strategic Thinking, Leadership, and Managing your boss

I learned the word “specificity” in my drama class. In the business world, nobody speaks this way because it is quite a mouthful. When we say, “please be specific,” that sounds a lot more elegant. But I now prefer “specificity” because it sounds much more… specific (especially if you try to pronounce it!).

I was tasked with acting as an old woman having a conversation with a young girl. As someone without any theater training, I relied on a very vague understanding of things. I thought of a stereotypical version of an old woman who was frail, tired, somewhat stuck in her views of the world, yet somewhat open to new ideas. I did know other versions of old ladies—some agile, some strong, and some very funny. But I chose the more typical version as an easy way out, anyway.

And I just couldn’t grasp what this role was all about. My facilitator said, “Yolanda, try to imagine that you are carrying a huge rock.” So I imagined myself carrying a huge and heavy rock, larger than my body, over my head. It was, of course, ridiculous. Why would any old lady carry such a huge rock?

But the moment I did that, I got into the specificity of my imagined character. My entire body was under a lot of stress. I was bent over, my joints aching. I couldn’t stand straight, and I started panting. This forced my communication with the girl to be really brief as I struggled to catch my breath.

To some extent, these were the aspects I had imagined with a vague idea. But I couldn’t grasp them before I got in touch with specificity.

I connected with this particular old lady who suffered from the gravity of life, not any other old lady in generalization.

This ONE Idea

Specificity is being so deeply connected with a particular thing, not anything else that is similar to it.

Yolanda Yu

I. Specificity in Strategic Thinking and Personal Branding

Specificity is a great virtue that helps us speak to the point and get the right things done. In the corporate world, vagueness is a widespread disease in the jungles of PowerPoint slides and strategy talks. No wonder so many companies want to get rid of them.

Consider the strategy statement below: 

“Our strategy is to drive innovation across our global ecosystem.”

Adding specificity is not about expanding on the details but about highlighting what makes one thing distinct from another. Otherwise, even if we add details, the message remains vague.

Try the statement below: 

“Our strategy is to drive innovation in internal software systems and user experience across our global ecosystem in Southeast Asia, America, and the Middle East.” 

Though it may look somewhat less abstract, it remains unclear what kind of innovation the speaker refers to, why the innovation is going to make a difference, and how they plan to do it. Most importantly, how is this particular innovation going to differ from another innovation?

A better example with specificity: 

“We aim to revolutionize user experience in our Middle Eastern markets by introducing voice-activated features in our mobile banking app.”

In personal branding, just as in anything else, if we are not specific, we can’t be distinct. Imagine someone writes in his or her resume, “I am a sales professional with 20 years of work experience in this particular domain.” That is not at all specific. How would you be different from another person who is also in sales and has worked for 20 years in a similar domain? Again, adding details like “I live in Red Hill with a pair of twins” does not help to increase specificity. We need the specificity that describes the characteristics of the forest, not each tree. Adding tree leaves does not help.

II. Specificity in Managing a Team or Managing a Boss

Who am I? Where am I? What am I doing?

This trio is the holy grail of acting. There are three levels of specificity: the character, the external environment, and the character’s interaction with the environment.

Applying this principle to leading a team, a leader needs to understand the current character and energy they are acting from. Then, the leader needs to recognize the specificities of the current situation. Lastly, the leader needs to be intentional about which toolkit they are using. When an energy shift happens, the leader needs to recalibrate according to the situation and develop a new strategy. This is to say, the leader is very conscious and aware of managing “the particular team at the particular moment,” not just “a team.”

On a similar note, if you find yourself preparing for a town hall meeting, find a way to turn it into “the town hall meeting.” Ask yourself,

What specificity do these meetings have? Is it about inspiring people, communicating a hard truth, or initiating a certain change? (Where am I)

What’s your role? Devil’s advocate? Or a royal messenger? (Who are you)

What strategy do you want to operate by? (What am I doing?)

Managing your boss:

The way we see our boss remains the most stereotypical area of all. We tend to see them just as “a senior person of a certain race and a certain background.” Only when we are able to explore the specifics of the person can we truly see him or her and honor the complexity they face today. That is also how we can build rapport with our bosses with more ease. When we see the person as “a senior person” rather than a real person with specificity, we are disconnected. Disconnection creates tension for us human beings.

Read: The Art of Impression Management with Senior Executives

III. How to Increase Specificity in How We Think, Speak, and Act

When we don’t think specifically, we don’t speak clearly. And we don’t act intentionally. How can we increase specificity then?

1. Increase Vocabulary and Mental Agility

Our capability to get specific is limited by our vocabulary on the subject matter.

One example: People unfamiliar with startup or entrepreneurship life often imagine a terrible work-life balance, lots of passion, and a high chance of failure. This is not wrong, but it is not specific. People deeper into the startup world understand more nuances about how the above parameters shift depending on the business models and the startup phases.

Another example: As a coach, I listen to people’s dilemmas or struggles. You probably hear these from your friends as well. The difference is that, for an untrained ear, these struggles usually sound rather similar. As a coach, I can differentiate the presented issues through their distinct textures and flavors and devise different strategies. But you don’t always have to obtain deep expertise.

For generalists and general management, the mental agility to recognize patterns at multiple levels, and moving up and down is key to strategic thinking.

(See my earlier article on convergent and divergent thinking)

2. Strengthen the Self Command Muscle to Catch Passing Thoughts

Everybody has had moments of regret: “I should have said that! And it did cross my mind!” Insights often cross our minds as passing thoughts. The problem is that we often let them go, and let the conversation carry us elsewhere. We can change this when we are able to name the passing thoughts and feelings.

The challenge is that our brains are not a quiet place. There is a storm of feelings, thoughts, and external information that comes and goes in a constantly changing dynamic of interaction with the external world. Our insights end up like slippery fish that keep swimming away from us.

One way to weave a tighter fishnet is to expand our vocabulary for our feelings and our mental models. For someone with a richer vocabulary, “I feel bad” can mean disappointment, sadness, a sense of betrayal, anger, or regret. And when we label our feelings in such a specific way, we have a better chance of grasping them in the moment and act accordingly. Similarly, having a vocabulary of thought patterns helps. Am I criticizing? Am I assessing? Am I analyzing? Am I rationalizing?

3. Expand Thinking Capacity with a Holding Space

Do we have to be led by all of our passing thoughts or investigate them in real time? It is not practical. Instead of acting on impulse, we notice our thoughts, feelings, external information, label them, and keep them in a holding space.

When we notice our conversation partner looking away, it is a signal that he or she is disengaged. Interestingly, in such a case, many people choose to continue talking, talk faster with more content, while the irritation of the other person not listening keeps mounting up. We can keep this signal in a holding space first, and wait until an appropriate time (such as after completing a paragraph), pause and make an inquiry: Am I losing you?


There are a few exercises that can help to strengthen your self-command and make your receptor more attuned to the external world.

“How might others see or judge me?” 

Shift to “What matters to me and everyone in this room right now?”

“What I imagine things to be” 

Shift to “What is real?”

“What I wish and desire things to be” 

Shift to “What is practically possible.”

“My worries about what I don’t know.” 

Shift to “The few things I do know.”

On the few things you do know, look deeper to learn about what you really know. Understand your insight to the level that you can articulate it. Honor it when you are ready.

portrait_Yolanda Yu_YL_r

Empowering Change From Within

Career & Leadership Coach, Start-up Mentor, and two-time Penguin Author, Yolanda has over 20 years’ corporate experience and served leadership positions in world top technology companies such as Alibaba, Visa, and Mastercard.

From software engineer to sales, headhunter, entrepreneur, to business leader in eCommerce and Fintech industries, Yolanda reinvented her career for countless times. She specializes in tailored coaching programs for professionals in the phases of career change and leadership transition.

Yolanda is particularly passionate about equipping technical leaders with leadership skills. She delivers leadership 101 courses through group coaching and 1:1 engagement.