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The Frame Is As Important as the Picture

By on Dec 4, 2012 No Comments

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I’m not an art expert, but I think it’s safe to say that painters paint the picture first and then worry about the frame. In persuasive communications, you need to do the opposite: choose the frame first and then paint your word picture. If you manage the frame, you manage the message.

A frame is simply a point of view, or a perspective to take on a particular situation. People have long known, and psychologists have recently confirmed, that changing perspective can change conclusions drawn and the choices made. In one disturbing example, even physicians were more apt to recommend a procedure with a 90% survival rate than one with a 10% mortality rate. You probably would not consider it fair if a store told you that you had to pay a surcharge for using a credit card, but what if they offered you a discount for cash? The point of all this is that how we look at the decision has a significant—often decisive—effect on the final decision. Expert persuaders pay as much attention to the frame as they do to the objective facts.

Frames are so powerful because your mind doesn’t process all the millions of bits of information that simultaneously bombard your senses; it simply can’t. And, even if it could, it would not be the most efficient use of brainpower and time: our ancestors survived long enough to pass on their genes to us because in emergencies they were able to focus on a limited—but correct—set of the incoming information. When we “choose” what to attend to, we exclude a vastly larger set of information. We each see the world through a limited “window”, whether or not we’re aware of why we choose that particular point of view at the time. That’s why several people can view a scenario and come away with very different perceptions and interpretations of what happened.

So many different frames to choose from

Let’s visit the frame shop and see what a rich array of choices we have for framing our arguments for maximum persuasive effect:

Positive/negative framing: In a nutshell, people are more likely to take risks and incur costs than to achieve gains. In an example I’ve written about before, about ¾ of respondents choose one decision when it is framed one way, and ¾ choose the exact opposite decision when it is framed another way. The effect is so strong that even when I use the example in my classes, many of the participants reverse their preferences even when they know there is no objective difference! If you were mulling over an investment that could make your company more competitive, do you suppose it might make a difference if you focused on the possibility that your competitor might implement it before you do?

This doesn’t mean all your messaging should be framed in a negative way. If the other person has already decided to do something, but not necessarily what, frame the what positively—they’re much more likely to buy the 90% lean beef than the 10% fat.

Identity framing: This is one of the strongest frames because it draws on intrinsic motivation. Everyone sees themselves in a certain way, and seeks to act consistently with that picture. In his book, Primer on Decision Making: How Decisions Happen, James March tells us that when confronted with a decision, people make a rapid unconscious calculation that answers these questions: What kind of situation is this? Who am I? What does a person such as I do in this type of situation? It also works at the organizational level. Last year, when I had a billing dispute with the local hospital authority, I quoted from their values statement on their web site in my letter to the CEO, and got immediate and complete satisfaction.

Fairness framing: The need for fairness is so ingrained in our psyches that we will often hurt ourselves just to punish someone we perceive as acting unfairly. But what is perceived as “fair” is extremely subjective, as this scenario illustrates. You’re thirsty while sitting on the beach on a hot day. Your friend offers to pick up a beer for you at the swank beach-side hotel bar a block away. How much would you be willing to pay for the beer? What if he was going to buy the beer at a run-down grocery store? Would that change how much you’re willing to pay? Most people would pay $5 or more in the first instance, but not above $2 in the second. Keep in mind that it’s the same beer, and they are going to drink it in the same place, but for some reason the higher price seems fair in one scenario but not the other.

Goal framing: There’s an old saying that where you stand on an issue depends on where you sit. The people you are trying to persuade will evaluate your message in relation to the goals they are trying to accomplish. Suppose you are selling an idea that will reduce your customer’s cost of goods by 5%. How would you position it? Most people in my classes tell me they would stress the impact of cost savings on the bottom line. But if the company’s stated business strategy is to increase market share, the more effective frame might call for applying the cost savings to price reductions, and this would change the entire focus of your sales strategy, including who you approach.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll cover several other excellent frames in a future article, including analogies, narratives, and contrast effects, so for now, let’s consider what this means to you as salespeople and/or general persuaders.

With so many different frames to choose from, how do you figure out the best approach? First, you have to know your audience so well that you can figure out how they’re currently framing the decision and which frame will most resonate. If they match, great—express your idea within that frame, if possible. If they don’t, figure out how to change their frame. Once you’ve selected your frame, that’s when you paint your word picture: just make sure everything you say is relevant and consistent within that frame.

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