Framing your message for maximum effect

Business Matter

Manish Shah is the former president of Midwest Law Printing in Chicago. He also worked at Intel, PwC and Motorola. He has an MBA from Kellogg Graduate School of Management, and a MS in Computer Science from Illinois Institute of Technology. He can be reached at

By Manish Shah

George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at Berkeley, is an expert on framing. Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. Anytime we hear a word, such as “elephant,” it invokes a frame. It can be an image or other kinds of knowledge: Elephants have trunks, have floppy ears and are used to haul load in developing countries.

Lakoff uses the expression “tax relief” to illustrate how words invoke a frame. “Tax relief” is a widely used phrase by the current administration. When the word “tax” is used in conjunction with the word “relief,” it invokes the frame that taxation is a hardship and the person, who relieves us from this hardship is a hero. On the other hand, anyone, who tries to prevent the reliever from administering the relief, is a villain.

The Bush administration’s failure to use the right frame to communicate its plan to combat the financial crisis is a great example of why appropriate framing is crucial for effective communication. The plan was labeled as a “bailout” which invoked the “bailout of rich guys on Wall Street” frame. Instead, if the plan was communicated as a “rescue plan,” which, in fact is,  the plan would have been better received by people on     the main street. Along with “rescue plan” frame the following facts should have been conveyed clearly to the American people by the administration.

l The government is going to provide up to $700 billion to ease the financial crisis. Experts such as Bill Gross and Warren Buffett are confident that since the government will be buying bank assets at fire sale prices and because it has the ability to hold the assets for a long time, the taxpayers will be making money in the long run. Given this, the $700 billion is an investment by the government on behalf of the taxpayers and it is not a blank check to banks.

l If the profits on the $700 billion investment materialize, they can be utilized to solve other critical issues that face our nation such as alternative energy.

l If we don’t implement the rescue plan, the credit freeze will trickle down. The average American, who wants to buy a car, won’t be able to finance it, the small mom and pop shop will not be able to get short- term loan to meet its payroll and in absence of student loans, parents will have to make the tough choice of not sending their kids to college.

lThere is a lot at stake if this rescue plan does not pass in congress. Call your representatives to ensure that they vote for this rescue plan.

Framing a message does     not mean spinning it, because spinning involves distorting the truth. Instead, effective framing is both sensible and right. It must  fit   into a system of frames so that it is sensible and it must also fit one’s moral worldview so that it is right.

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