What I love about communications isn't the writing, the messaging, the one-pagers or the press releases. What I love about communications work is that it facilitates connections. When I'm doing my job well I'm in active conversation with my audience. I am connecting. We are connecting.
I call myself a translator. I translate vision into impact. I connect with my audience, understand who they are and what they care about, and then I find the intersections between their worldview and the organization or policy I'm communicating about. In this process, the content of the project or policy I'm communicating about is secondary. In order to get my audience to even begin to care about the content, we have to connect. It's my job to facilitate that connection, often only through words and visuals, through framing.
Framing gives your audience a quick indication of whether the information you are sharing is relevant to them. The FrameWorks Institute has a nice description, "Quite simply, framing refers to the subtle selection of certain aspects of an issue in order to cue a specific response."
I don't think the importance of framing can be underestimated. Framing can mean the success or failure of an initiative. And yet, I've found that a lot of good policy and advocacy work suffers from a lack of attention to framing. There is a misconception if we speak loudly or clearly enough we can convince the right people of the right things. If we list enough of the benefits, people will line up to help. But it doesn't work that way. As Seth Godin in All Marketers Are Liars writes, "A consumer's worldview affects the way he notices things and understands them. If a story is framed in terms of that worldview, he's more likely to believe it." Knowing and connecting with your audience is essential to them even hearing what you are trying to say.
Here are a few great examples of the impact of framing:
This American Life: Put a Bow on It
This episode explores the importance of framing a number of interesting ways, including how new fast food items are chosen for the menu. The reporter, Zoe Chase, visited a test kitchen and was surprised to find that the taste of the new product was not the most important factor. She captures these statements from a few of the fast food executives:
"If we can't come up with a name, it's probably not going to sell."
"It's not enough for a product to taste good. It has to sound good or you'll never find out that it tastes good."
Chase concludes, "What they're looking for is the story they're going to tell to explain why the weirdness makes sense. And it's got to be a pretty good story-- simple, punchy. Half ironic wouldn't hurt. That is just as hard as coming up with the sandwich."
The story sells the sandwich. The story of the sandwich has to connect to the consumer or the consumer will never even give the sandwich a chance. This is what I mean when I say the content is secondary in communications--the connection has to happen first and that happens through framing, through a story.
On Being with Krista Tippett: Ellen Langer, Science of Mindlessness and Mindfulness
This conversation with Dr. Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard, describes framing a bit differently. Her research focuses on mindfulness, which she refers to as "actively noticing." In her studies, Dr. Langer asks participants to think differently about something in their lives, to change their frame of mind, and then she measures the impact. In describing the theme of her work, she states: "...you change a word or two here or there, and you get vastly different effects."
In one of her studies, Dr. Langer encouraged maids to think of their work not as work, but as exercise. The impact of changing the word and the frame of mind of the maids was that instances of obesity and diabetes actually decreased. Changing what they called their work had a significant impact on their health.
The conversation covers a number of other interesting studies. Well worth a listen.
Framing is important whether we are talking about fast food, health, or new education policy. Creating that connection with your audience isn't easy, but it is well worth the effort.
If you need help with framing, let me know. In framing public policy issues, the FrameWorks Institute is a tremendous resource.
I'm always interested in hearing stories about the impact of word choice and framing. Have you come across any interesting connections to this theme recently? Send your thoughts, articles, or podcasts my way or add them to the comments below.
I hope you have a lovely holiday season full of friends, family, good food, and a revelization or two!