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Effective Leadership: How to Use Framing to Communicate Strategically
How Framing Can Move Clients, Colleagues, and Employees to Action
If you were to ask any leader, "Is a key part of your job persuading people?" they would resoundingly answer "yes." But if you were then to ask, "What kinds of strategies do you use to persuade people?" it’s unlikely they’d be able to name a specific strategy or approach.
What this means is that some leaders might not have the right set of tools for one of the most important parts of their job: getting people to agree with them. In this blog post, I explain how all leaders should have one of the most effective tools for persuasion: framing.
What Is Framing?
Framing is communicating strategically.
Framing has multiple definitions, but this is mine: framing is the strategic use of words and language to construct a reality for your audience so that you achieve your desired goals.
You’ve likely used framing unknowingly at some point in your work career. Perhaps you were giving feedback to someone, and you deliberately "sandwiched" your feedback: you started your feedback on a positive note by identifying what they were doing well, then described something they needed to work on, and then ended again on a positive note.
This "sandwich" example aptly illustrates the framing definition; you strategically selected and sequenced particular words so that your audience saw the feedback as constructive and helpful. The reality you constructed for your audience was that they were doing well but had some things to work on, and this reality is more likely to mean that your audience will apply the feedback and grow from it. You could have, instead, only provided them with the negative feedback which could have risked creating a reality for the audience that their performance was all negative.
This "sandwich" example is perhaps one of the more obvious and less high-stakes examples of framing. For leaders, however, framing is a high-stakes game. I’d go so far as to say a leader’s success is contingent upon their ability to achieve buy-in and alignment from stakeholders. And to do this, leaders must transform how they think about communication and persuasion. Instead of seeing writing and speaking as the mere transmission of words, leaders need to see communication as an opportunity to craft new realities for their audience.
Examples of Framing
Framing has long been used in the political sphere to gather support for a piece of legislature or curry favor among voters. When former US President George Bush wanted to pass a law that weakened environmental regulations on industry in 2003, he named the bill the Clean Skies Act. Subsequently, anyone trying to understand the Clean Skies Act would be learning about the bill through this frame, or reality, of "clean skies," which would make it hard to see the bill as anything but pro-environment.
Similarly, when former US President Barack Obama rolled out his landmark 2009 health care bill he didn’t give it a boring name like Health Care Act 4257. He strategically framed its label and called it the Affordable Care Act, knowing that people’s primary concern with health care is affordability. If he could get Americans to see that this bill addressed their concerns, and they would assign the bill positive associations, then the legislation had a higher chance of success.
How Do I Frame a Message?
One of the most challenging parts of framing is that we have to rewire how our brains think about communication. Very few of us think very deeply before we communicate, or in other words, we don’t think before we speak. Which most of the time is okay. But when we’re working on an important project or initiative, it’s critical that we’re aware of our thinking and make sure we pause and think strategically. Below, I detail three steps that will enable you to think strategically to develop a set of frames for any kind of message.
Step 1: Begin with your audience
Regardless of what kind of message you are crafting or medium you are working in, it’s imperative that you start with your audience. You want to deeply understand who they are, what they care about, how they see the issue, and what their motivations are.
Most importantly, it’s key to figure out what kinds of problems or issues they have. For example, if you want to encourage company executives to adopt a more generous paternity leave, you’ll first want to figure out who they are and what they care about. What do execs frequently talk about? What kinds of wins or successes do they like to highlight? What kinds of evidence do they provide for their ideas or proposals? You want to identify two or three values that they hold before you move on to step 2.
Step 2: Orient your message around your audience’s values
Using our example, say you found that the execs at your organization care deeply about keeping up with their competitors. They believe strongly that the company’s future success relies on their ability to recruit and hire top-level employees, and to do this they need to offer comparable if not better benefits than industry rivals.
Interestingly, you don’t really share their view. You feel that a longer paternity leave is a good idea not because it makes it easier to recruit great talent but because it is the moral thing to do. That argument, however, won’t work with executives, who feel more strongly about the company’s competitiveness than they do the moral arguments for paternity leave.
Because you are acting strategically, you are not going to open up your meeting with them by extolling the moral value of a longer paternity leave for employees. Instead, you are going to frame your meeting with them around what they care about: recruiting great talent.
Step 3: Craft a simple message that is reader-centric and concise.
There is more to framing, however, than simply linking your goal to your audience’s values. What you want to do is develop a simple and engaging phrase that your audience can both remember and retell.
There are many ways to do this, but one approach is to think of simple analogies or metaphors that strongly convey the values that your audience cares about. Here are three potential messages for this paternity leave example that draw upon analogic thinking:
- "Increasing paternity leave to six months would further signal to up and coming talent that we are thought leaders in our industry"
- "With expanded paternity leave, we have an opportunity to truly set ourselves apart from our competitors"
- "In the race for top talent, expanded paternity leave would put us at the head of the pack"
If pressed to distil the information in this blog post into one frame, it would simply be the following: "words matter." And yet this seemingly obvious phrase conveys an idea that most leaders perhaps don’t take as seriously as they should.
Words matter, and they matter because words are how people make sense of the world. When we use words that convey values that align with our audience’s values, we’re far more likely to engage them and, ideally, persuade them.
Looking for more? Join Andrew (A.J.) Ogilvie, PhD, Professor of Business Communication for an in-depth training and Q&A.
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