Let’s Talk “Framing”
…Not the kind you do with a painting or photograph. Or when building a house. And certainly not the kind that’s a criminal activity. No, the kind of framing we’d like to discuss has to do with communicating.
Here’s an example: In one of our fifty states – Alaska, to be specific – there’s an oil reserve containing about ten billion barrels of recoverable oil. At full production, that reserve could supply one million barrels of oil a day. Unfortunately, that reserve is located in something called the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR, for short), and by law it’s off limits to drilling. That’s framing. Those four words – Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – evoke images of a beautiful, inviting land too pristine to open up to drilling – even though the portion of ANWR where drilling would occur (less than 0.01% of the refuge’s acreage) is essentially tundra (that’s also framing), containing no trees, no deepwater lakes and no mountains. What’s more, in winter, temperatures there drop to 30 below zero. Let’s face it; a tourist destination it’s not.
In short, framing has to do with the mental representations created by certain words or phrases. It’s similar to connotation. All words have a denotation – a dictionary definition. But some words also have a connotation – a special meaning an individual associates with the word. For example, in our media training, we caution people not to use the words “no comment” when talking to a reporter. The reason is that those two words have come to suggest that the user is guilty or hiding something. Sometimes your goal is to produce a shift in someone’s mental representation. Framing can help you do that.
Here are a few other examples: Visit Germany today, especially cities like Berlin and Nuremberg, and you’re likely to see and hear Germans refer to the period of their history during some of the 1930s and 1940s as the “period of national socialism.” That phrase generates a different (and more acceptable) mental image than the phrase “Nazi period” does.
Or think about how the Obama administration referred to BP during the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico a few years back. Even though just about everyone knows BP by the name BP, the administration used the name British Petroleum over and over to remind Americans that this was not an American company.
Successful framing requires four things:
- Frame your message around benefits the audience will find attractive. This is not always easy – especially when communicating to a diverse audience. For example, at a shareholders meeting, saying you plan to reduce your workforce may resonate with some shareholders, but what about employee shareholders?
- Be sure your message incorporates values and beliefs widely held by the audience. According to E.D. Steele and W.C. Redding, here’s a list of basic American values:
▪ The value of the individual
▪ Science and secular rationality
▪ Achievement and success
▪ Change and progress
▪ Material comfort
▪ Ethical equality
▪ Equality of opportunity
▪ External conformity
▪ Effort and optimism
▪ Efficiency, practicality and pragmatism
▪ Generosity and “considerateness”
▪ Rejection of authority
- Use a shared language. Language (e.g., level and style) is a powerful way to establish a connection with someone. David Gergen, who had a hand in preparing Ronald Reagan’s speeches, may have put it best when he insisted that the President’s speechwriters use “language of the living room.”
- Keep it short – 10-25 words if possible. If you say too much, you’ll probably lose the audience’s attention.