Choose the Right Frame to Boost the Power of Your Content

Looking to create a much greater impact with your content? Start by understanding how it’s framed.

It’s a little early for a Book Club episode, but I just read the new edition of George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant, and I was blown away by the simplicity and power of his ideas.

In this 19-minute episode, I talk about some of the key ideas in Lakoff’s book:

  • What a “frame” is, and how it shapes the information we take in
  • Why facts aren’t, by themselves, persuasive
  • Why you must at all costs avoid using the language of your competitors
  • The two big frames that inform culture and politics in the U.S. (and are active in other places as well)
  • What to do with an audience that has both frames “installed” (a common scenario)

The Show Notes

Choose the Right Frame to Boost the Power of Your Content

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.

Sonia Simone: Hey there, good to see you again. Welcome back to Copyblogger FM, the content marketing podcast. Copyblogger FM is about emerging content marketing trends, interesting disasters, and enduring best practices, along with the occasional rant. My name is Sonia Simone. I’m the Chief Content Officer for Rainmaker Digital and I like to hang out with the folks who do the heavy lifting over on the Copyblogger blog. You can always get extra resources and links, as well as the complete show archive, by visiting Copyblogger.FM.

Today is a little bit early for another book club, but I really want to talk to you guys about a book that was recently released by George Lakoff. It’s called, Don’t Think of an Elephant. Just a word of warning, it is political, in that it is a book about political strategy and persuasion strategy. If you totally hate politics, then you probably should not pick it up, because you will probably not like it.

Now, Lakoff is not neutral, he has a point of view politically, and as a matter of fact, he makes a good case that no one’s really neutral, that we all subscribe to what he calls ‘frames,’ which are sometimes, but not always associated with a political side. Given that both political sides have used his work, have benefited from his work, and in fact, I think you could argue that the side he doesn’t agree with has benefited more from his work, which is interesting. It’s not particularly a book for one side or the other of the political spectrum.

It is a really fascinating book if you are interested in the psychology of persuasion and how that works its way out in the real world. Lakoff is a linguist, I believe his … ‘cognitive linguist’ is his particular specialty over at UC Berkeley, which is my alma mater, so I think that’s cool. The ideas that he talks about are actually quite simple. They’re also quite deep in the sense of being very much underlying so much of what we do, so much of what we think about, and since all of us have situations where it would be useful to persuade other people, I thought that these ideas would be interesting and fun to kind of explore and maybe even play around with.

What a “Frame” is, and How it Shapes the Information We Take in

The first idea is the idea of a ‘frame’ and this is what I would call a fairly common sense idea. This is something that every one of us sees every day and we tend to think when we see it, “Why is the other side so weird?” This is not just about politics, this is about, really any aspect of human life. You see it with nutrition, with parenting, exercise, art, entertainment, work. It doesn’t matter what it is, you see this at work, this idea of frames.

I’ll give you his description, “Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world.” For example, if your frame is low-carb, that eating carbohydrates makes you fat and unhealthy, then sugar is always going to be the devil, full stop. No matter if there was a massive new study that came out tomorrow that said that eating a small amount of sugar every day was critical to health, you wouldn’t believe it, because it wouldn’t work within your frame. If right now, you’re saying well that kind of study wouldn’t come out tomorrow because it’s not possible, and in any event, I’m sure it would be fake science. I’m sure it would be funded by the sugar industry. That’s a sign that that’s your frame. Right? Your frame is that sugar is destructive.

Now we don’t get to opt out of these. These are sometimes called cognitive biases or confirmation bias. It’s what we believe to be true and so then the more we hear of that, the more we accept. But it goes deeper than cognitive bias or confirmation bias. It’s not just what you believe about climate change, it’s why you believe what you believe about climate change. When Lakoff is talking about frames, for the purposes of our conversation today and for the purposes of his book, we’re talking about very deep and broad landscapes for cognition.

Why Facts Aren’t, by Themselves, Persuasive

A couple of things that are really interesting about how these frames work. Possibly the most interesting and the one that we are all seeing a lot of right now, is that if you take in a fact and it doesn’t fit your frame, that fact will just bounce off. That is confirmation bias. If you get a mountain of evidence that says that we live on a comparatively tiny blue-green rock that orbits the sun, but your frame is that the earth is flat, then that mountain of science is just going to turn into a conspiracy theory. There is no evidence that’s ever going to convince you that the world is round because your frame needs it to be flat.

Just to be totally clear, because we have seen political spokespeople talking about alternative facts with a straight face, I want to make it clear that I do not believe that this belongs to one side or the other side of the political spectrum. I have seen lots and lots of confirmation bias and every single point on that spectrum and others beside. It’s not a left thing, it’s not a right thing. It’s just how we operate.

If we get a fact and it doesn’t fit the frame, it’s gonna be incredibly difficult for us to incorporate that fact into how we see the world. There’s simply too much stuff in the world for us to go through every single fact, every single thing we learn, and then weigh it for its truthfulness. I would also pick up, speaking of good books, Daniel Kahneman’s, Thinking, Fast and Slow. It’s really long. I got through a good two thirds of it. I felt pretty proud. He’s another UC Berkeley alum so, go Bears. Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics. It’s a very interesting read about quick mental processing and slow mental processing.

Frames are one of the things that enable that quick processing, where you can just take in a piece of information and essentially immediately decide, “Is this relevant, is it credible, am I going to add it to my store of information or not?” Human brains use frames and since I’m just going to guess that you are issued a human brain, that’s kind of what you have to work with and what I have to work with. We might as well get some clarity about how they tend to process information. Both for ourselves, but also when we’re talking to other people.

Why You Must at All Costs Avoid Using the Language of Your Competitors

The second thing Lakoff talks about in terms of frames that I found was super interesting was the observation that negating the frame reinforces the frame. Here is an example that is fairly easy to understand. When Richard Nixon tried to defend himself by saying, “I am not a crook.” In fact, he repeated it, “I am not a crook. I have never been a crook. I don’t even know what a crook looks like.” We had ‘Nixon’ and we had ‘crook.’ We had Nixon and we had crook and everybody walked away from that thinking, yeah, that guy’s just completely a crook.

For a much more recent example, we can see that many people who have very controversial voices will tweet something on Twitter and it gets retweeted like hundreds of thousands of times by people who say, “Look at this. This is terrible, it isn’t true. It’s bad. It’s wrong.” All of that retweeting, all of that restating the frame, even though you’re stating it in a negative context actually helps that frame solidify in people’s mindsets.

For this reason, Lakoff has a recommendation and I think it is sound, I think it makes sense, which is, “Do not use your competitor’s language.” Don’t spin off clever versions of their catchphrases, or their taglines, or their slogans. Don’t use their language to talk about what it is that you’ve got to offer. Use your own language that’s rooted in your own frame. Otherwise you’ll actually reinforce their message even if you’ve just piled up a magnificent mountain of evidence against their point of view.

The Two Big Frames that Inform Culture and Politics in the U.S. (and are Active in Other Places as Well)

Continuing with Lakoff; he identifies two big frames in United States culture. I don’t, for a moment, think these are the only two frames at work, but I think they’re important. I also think that they definitely play out to a significant degree in Europe. One of the frames that we see play out in quite a few different walks of life, different spectra is the ‘strict father’ frame.

Here are some of the tenets of the strict father frame. Human nature is fundamentally evil. There is a concept here of original sin. People are basically born bad, and because people are born bad, kids need a lot of discipline so that they can learn to be good. That kids are not naturally good, they need to be taught how to be good people. The strict father model, as the name implies, is very hierarchical. You might know the name of that television series from the 1950s, Father Knows Best. That’s kind of the tagline for this model.

The head of the household, who is the father, makes the rules and then everybody else needs to get in line and obey those rules because he’s the one who knows best. He’s the one who takes care of everybody. Discipline is a really key concept in this frame. Discipline is created by punishing wrongdoing and part of wrongdoing is questioning authority. Okay, so that’s a frame that’s important in our culture, the strict father frame.

Another frame that’s important in our culture is what’s called the ‘nurturing parent’ frame. In this frame, human nature is fundamentally good. Kids are fundamentally good people, and if you don’t wreck them, then they’ll grow up to be good people. That’s what this frame believes. The family structure is much less hierarchical. One of the cornerstone values is empathy. The family’s job is less to discipline and punish and more to just create a space where children can learn and grow by making mistakes without making major problems. That kind of idea is in the nurturing parent frame.

What to Do With an Audience that Has Both Frames “Installed” (a Common Scenario)

For me, one of the more important things to notice about these two frames is that there are people that are nearly all one frame and there are people who are nearly all the other frame, but many people have both frames … What Lakoff calls ‘activated’ at the same time. They have some strict father beliefs and have some nurturing parent beliefs. Both of those frames are active and which one is gonna get used to make a decision is going to depend on the context. That’s where most people are.

Just as an aside that I found actually bonafide amusing, I taught ‘nurturing parent,’ like I used those words, for quite a few years as a particularly solid, particularly reliable archetype to use when creating content marketing. Thinking of the nurturing parent as the archetype for an authoritative figure, but in a different way with a very different flavor from that strict father figure. I kind of chuckled when I saw that in Lakoff’s book, because again, clearly it’s probably not a massive surprise to you that would be the frame that is much more activated in my worldview.

Another thing to notice about these is that … Again, many people do have both frames activated and often one will be activated in one context. So, like, one will be active at work, and a different one will be active at home, or one is active in the political sphere, but maybe not in a hobby, or in health. People will tend to activate these frames differently depending on where they are, the context they’re in, and what’s going on around them. People who have both frames installed can have one or the other triggered, depending on your messaging.

That’s where it starts to become quite important about how we communicate. We’ve already talked about facts. If they don’t fit the frame, will just bounce off, just like meteors bouncing off the atmosphere. Messages, apart from just dry recitations of fact, are going to activate a frame of some kind. They will probably activate one of these two frames most of the time, for most of the things that we do.

I think it’s really critical, if you are in the business of persuading people, that you know what your frame is, which most of us tend to recognize it fairly immediately, and then really study the language, and more important, study the ideas of your frame, because these are going to inform everything you say and everything you do. They’re going to inform the kinds of stories that you tell. The kinds of language that you use. The images you use on your website. Your pop culture references. Everything is going to come out of that frame.

You may have noticed, if you’ve been reading Copyblogger, we talk a lot about this. This is the Unity principle from Robert Cialdini. This is belief. These are our values. Where I think the frame model comes in handy is just giving the whole thing, like a framework, to sit in. That it’s not just that I have the value of integrity, or have the value of empathy, but that those values sit in a frame. They relate and connect with other values.

One other thing that Lakoff stresses … He gets asked by political parties, “Could you please come up with a tagline that’s going to be the next great political tagline? Could you please give us two words put together that are going to change everybody’s mind about an important concept?” It doesn’t work that way. It’s not about a catchphrase. It’s not about a tagline. It’s the idea and it’s the framework of values that that tagline activates. You can’t just zoom in and go right to that skimming off the top and come up with a couple of cheap words that convey what you mean. It’s really about the whole message resonating properly within the frame that is the correct frame for your organization or your personal communication.

Some Parting Advice

I’ll leave you just with the advice that is his advice very much, which is that the time to start is now. Because repetition strengthens the activation of the frame. Literally every word of your content, every syllable, every pixel should be consciously chosen to fit within a frame. You have to know your frame. Now, I’m not saying that you necessarily, wholesale, take the frame from Lakoff’s book, or from this description.

These frames have flavors. These frames have exceptions. They’re not tied to a single group. They’re not tied to a single religious group. They’re not tied to a single part of the country, but each of these frames has flavors. You need to understand the specifics and the nuances, the deep beliefs, the family beliefs, those dinner table beliefs that your frame implies. Then work with that as your ground level and construct it from there.

I would be very interested in hearing, if you would drop a comment. Swing on over to Copyblogger.FM and leave a comment. Let me know, what’s your frame for your organization? The communication that you’re doing right now, whether it’s your own blog, a podcast, work you’re doing for your company, which frame is it? Is it a strict father frame? Is it a nurturing parent frame? Or do you think it’s a blended frame or maybe a flavor of one of those frames? I would be very, very interested to know.

The book is by George Lakoff, L-A-K-O-F-F, it’s called Don’t Think of an Elephant. Again, you don’t have to be a political junkie to just find this take on communication and communication strategy really fascinating. He has a million interesting little linguistic insights. If you’re not turned off by politics, I definitely recommend picking it up. It’s a fascinating, fast and fascinating read. Thank you so much and I’ll catch you next week.