On a wall in an art gallery in Greenwich, sits a painting by French post impressionist master, Henri Martin. The work is an oil on canvas, Sur La Côte, a painting of the Basque coastline, running along the Bay of Biscay. From a vantage point at the top of the cliffs Martin depicted the white foamy surf crashing against the rocks below him.
What you will see if you visit the gallery is very different dependent on what you’re interested in. If you’re a contemporary collector you will see Sur La Côte in a silver modernist frame makes the turn of the century French impressionist piece look more contemporary. If you’re a period buyer you will see the piece in a French frame which makes an avant-garde composition for its time look more traditional.
This, both literally and psychologically is framing. Framing Bias in communication and social science can be thought of as influencing the choices people make by changing how we present information.
Framing is everywhere
Pretty much everything we see and hear is framed. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes not. It doesn’t just apply to paintings. If you’ve ever watched the Olympics, or any other sporting event, you’ve been framed. Medal tables — the chest-thumping aren’t we the best athletes list by country — are ordered by total medal count (bronze, silver and gold) OR most number of gold medals. Which order you see on TV depends on the country you’re in, and (you guessed it) which one shows the country’s athletic performance in the best light.
Framing a Mustang
Take Lee Iaccoca’s 1964 Ford Mustang. It tapped into a car-buying boom in the 1960′s with classic sports car Like the Jaguar E-Type, Ferrari 250 GTO, Bond’s Aston Martin db5 and the Shelby AC Cobra. The mustang had the looks to compete with those cars, but it was a paper tiger, based on the stolid interior, chassis, suspension and and drivetrain components of the Ford’s Falcon and Fairlane.
This re-framing of a sports car, flashy styling with family sedan mechanicals, was a tremendous success. The Mustang blew away original sales forecasts of 100,000 units for the first year in 3 months. In its first eighteen months, more than one million Mustangs were built, and it’s gone on to be an icon of the American car industry.
A Framing Lesson
Like the case of the painting, the medals and the car, framing is critical to your presentation, conversation or message. A very successful advertising executive told me his strategy for winning a pitch. “I always want to go first.” He said, “that way, I can set up with the client what they should be looking for in an ad agency. Not just how they should look at the creative work, but what’s important in a partner.”
You have to do the same for your next presentation. Think about the existing frame, how people view the world. You will either want to feed into or re-frame that, and move them to action.
A simple method to do that is to construct a table. Draw a 2 column, 3 row grid. On one hand, write down what you want to get across, what you want the audience to feel, what action you want them to take. Now draw a line down the center of the piece of paper. On the right, write down the action you want the audience to take. Note how you think they feel coming in to this presentation. Jot down what you think they want to know. This simple tool* is a way for you to get clarity as you build your frame.
*We call it a T-Leaf.
Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at makeapowerfulpoint.com. You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.