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February 14, 2007

Frame or Be Framed

iStock_000000433950XSmall.jpg George Lakoff is a professor at U.C. Berkeley Linguistics Department. He’s written a book called Don’t Think of an Elephant His message in this interview concerns how Republicans appear to be good “framers” and Democrats are lousy ones. Here are two questions from the interview:

Question: How does language influence the terms of political debate?

Language always comes with what is called “framing.” Every word is defined relative to a conceptual framework. If you have something like “revolt,” that implies a population that is being ruled unfairly, or assumes it is being ruled unfairly, and that they are throwing off their rulers, which would be considered a good thing. That’s a frame.

If you then add the word “voter” in front of “revolt,” you get a metaphorical meaning saying that the voters are the oppressed people, the governor is the oppressive ruler, that they have ousted him and this is a good thing and all things are good now. All of that comes up when you see a headline like “voter revolt”—something that most people read and never notice. But these things can be affected by reporters and very often, by the campaign people themselves.

Question: Do any of the Democratic Presidential candidates grasp the importance of framing?

None. They don’t get it at all. But they’re in a funny position. The framing changes that have to be made are long-term changes. The conservatives understood this in 1973. By 1980 they had a candidate, Ronald Reagan, who could take all this stuff and run with it. The progressives don’t have a candidate now who understands these things and can talk about them. And in order for a candidate to be able to talk about them, the ideas have to be out there. You have to be able to reference them in a sound bite. Other people have to put these ideas into the public domain, not politicians. The question is, How do you get these ideas out there? There are all kinds of ways, and one of the things the Rockridge Institute is looking at is talking to advocacy groups, which could do this very well. They have more of a budget, they’re spread all over the place, and they have access to the media.

Right now the Democratic Party is into marketing. They pick a number of issues like prescription drugs and Social Security and ask which ones sell best across the spectrum, and they run on those issues. They have no moral perspective, no general values, no identity. People vote their identity, they don’t just vote on the issues, and Democrats don’t understand that. Look at Schwarzenegger, who says nothing about the issues. The Democrats ask, How could anyone vote for this guy? They did because he put forth an identity. Voters knew who he is.

This isn’t a political blog (not that my saying this is going to affect the comments but you already know that I believe in open commenting). My goal is to draw lessons from linguistics and apply them to business because it is a very useful marketing technique. For example, “a music-listeners revolt” would imply that record companies are unfairly ruling people who listen to music. This beats the heck out of “piracy,” and the company who provides “relief” for this oppression is logically a hero.

If you play hockey and are within fifty miles of Colorado Springs, please send me an email because I’m looking for a game.


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The 'piracy' example brought to mind another related example: 'digital rights management'.

What if it had been 'digital restrictions mandate'?


Hi, Guy. George Lakoff is an author of many very good books on philosophy: Metaphors we live by; Women, fire and dangerous things; Philosophy in the flesh, just to cite some. The very issue regarding frames is context, a very complex linguistic semantic concept. The philosophical concept behind it is the one of ontologies, a very much misused word and concept. It is also related to the way the human mind retrieves frames of reference about concepts and their context. This is strong philosophy, that is related to any everyday life situations, including politics. Cheers, Jose Luis (Brazil)

This reminds me of William Gibson's post on the Overton window.



This concept of framing was leveraged by the Conservatives in Canada, and Stephen Harper (a.ka. Bush's Caddy) became Prime Minister. The Liberals had too much to say and didn't bring it down to basics.

Its not only the "words" we use today for politics or marketing, but the 'Symbology" that accompanies the words, what supports the context of the words on YouTube, on TV and websites. Today I beleive they blend.

I'm glad I see that I'm not the only one who saw the start...."George Lakoff" and thought oh brother that guy is so flash in the pan. Mind you I read his article and even checked out his Rockridge "institute" back in the day but please there is not much there there, certainly not compared to someone like Frank Luntz who is a true junkie and knows the concepts in real world not ivory tower, the Democrats loved Lakoff for a full fifteen minutes after '06. Check out Frank Luntz's interview on Booktv.org from the Afterwords Program and get the frame the picture and the rest of the wall..

Guy I'm disappointed. Lackoff's a douche. Frame that.

How important is "framing"?

Howard Dean was the Democrat's golden boy prior to Obama. He's an excellent "framer", ran an internet-savvy campaign universally acclaimed by friends and foes, yet fizzled he unceremoniously during the primaries.

The same can be said about John Edwards in 2004. Edwards is very good speaker, has a strong coherent message, but his campaign flopped nevertheless.

Compare to Nancy Pelosi who has no real voice nor message of her own, yet is now the Speaker of the House, 2nd in the succession line to the Presidency.

Of course, despite the most recent election results, the best "framer" we've seen in a very long time is Karl Rove (whether you love or hate him.)

You can find the Reframing book in used bookstores for a few bucks. I disagree about the Dilts book- he is more technical but much less readable. And Bandler and Grinder started a lot of this stuff.
Plus they are a couple of wise guys...

Old book (which I've read). Old interview. While Lahkoff made some excellent points re the power of words - things have changed dramatically - and not because the Democratic Party has changed much.

Framing, schaming. The 2006 election showed that you can only go so far in control through marketing bla-blah. When the disconnect between word and deed get too great people will eventually see it (and act accordingly). And, that goes for any type of marketing - from political candidates to vacuum cleaners.

First, framing is a concept that has been discussed in university communications theory departments since the seventies. It's a great concept and one that few Democrats really get. However, Mr. Lakoff is wrong in asserting that "No" Democrats get it.

Second, the new golden child of the Democratic Party, Barack Obama, clearly gets it. Anyone who heard/saw his announcement speech KNOWS that he and his advisers "get it." Perhaps the best evidence of his effective use of framing, however, is that the media and other Democrats are calling on him to "put meat on the bones" and "flesh out" his lofty rhetoric with more specific policy positions.

Guy, your 'framing' refers to the most instinctive 'controversy language trick' on the planet.

If you look for a reference on this, please check Arthur Schopenhauer's 'Art of Controversy'. Published in 1830, 22 pages, free of charge and totally relevant.
URL (Free PDF)

Your specific 'framing' point is mentioned page 1 (Stratagem XII)
According to the author 'Of all the tricks of controversy, this is the most frequent, and it is used instinctively.'




Thanks so much! I really appreciate this pointer.


Hey Guy,

I wouldn't spend the $60 for Reframing by Bandler. Two much better books in my opinion are:

1 - Sleight of Mouth - The Magic of Conversational Belief Change by Robert Dilts ($55.70 on half.com)

2 - Mind-lines: Lines for Changing Minds by Michael Hall (29.95 on amazon)

I recommend option 2 as it expands on the work of Dilts and Bandler.


Framing, NLP... This reminds me of a visit about a year ago to an old friend in a rest home. I brought him a bagel for breakfast and he was sitting with a gentleman who was eyeing the bagel and salivating like a dog. If that's how you want to sell your idea, product, or service, whatever... Watching this dynamic go on with global warming now makes me understand how pacifists must have felt in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

But if I'm gonna be critical and cynical, I've got to offer something good to redeem myself. Here's a great article pointed to by Arnold Kling today:


Near the end, it describes a controlled experiment where students are told that their brains are like a muscle that needs exercise to improve, and their math scores go up. A much more positive application of screwing with people's minds, FWIW.

It's definitely not a spam.

Your post reminds me of a novel, All The Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren.

Can be found here.

An award winning book. Its about politics, society, leadership and more. There is a movie as well. That is good too.

Guy, this is a great subject, but I think it should be noted that this interview appears to be over three years old, so how much of it applies to current Dem/Rep conversations may have likely changed. I think this was true when he said it. After Soros and others started helpign his efforts, he has gotten plenty of airtime in the Dem , and I think they have listened.

But the real point of Lakoff's work is not knowing how to frame issues to other people (that is helpful of course) but knowing the frame one is, and has been, living in for years. That to me is the value of his work an books, which goes way beyond politics or trying to convince people. It's learning as a Dem or Rep how you tent to see the world, usually completely out of one's awareness.

Strategist Frank Lutz has a similar book out that I've heard is really good. http://www.amazon.com/Words-That-Work-What-People/dp/1401302599/sr=8-1/qid=1171489586/ref=pd_bbs_1/002-2071067-4699207?ie=UTF8&s=books

This isn't spam btw, I just thought I'd pass the book along.

The title of this blog is, How to Change the World.

This blog entry is about using linguistic framing to Change the World.

The implied sub-topics of this post are authority, salesmanship and power.

Is it worthwhile to look at a simple linguistic phrase and its re-framing to contemplate
its implications concerning power and world changing salesmanship?

Did this language influence and does it still influence the terms of the political debate?

Can you identify the author, subject and context of the following linguistic phrases?

I AM THAT I AM...I AM hath sent me unto you.

Before Abraham was, I AM.

I think, therefore I AM.

I AM not a crook.

I yam what I yam, and that's all I yam.

I heard another student of linguistics say,

"In Business there are no ethics, only negotiation."

Would the author of the phrase, "I AM THAT I AM" agree with the
negotiator? Who will have the last word?

I think the key point of framing is not just the words we/politicians use but having a moral identity. Standing for something more important than the issues. As start ups we need to not chase the trends (popular issues). We need to be the trend setters.

There is another book that talks about this: Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear, by Dr. Frank Luntz. If this topic interests you, don't miss reading this; it applies to business, politics, relationships. Thanks, Guy, for bringing up this issue as it applies to politics. As voters we need to be smart and not manipulated by the words, and instead be influenced by the real issues.

The comment about the Governator is another endorsement for blogging and putting a personal face on what you do.

I haven't read his book, but it seems like Lakoff frames "framing" as a persuasive tactic. There's perhaps an equally important role played by framing which is motivational. Frames determine whether or not to pay attention in the first place. Frames are interesting in that they interact with preexisting values, identity, and self-interest (much more so than offering new information that tips the balance in favor of a particular judgment). You have to pay attention before you're persuaded, and attention is rooted in motivational factors like material self interest. A classic example is the time horizon used to frame global warming. At least since Kyoto, global warming has been described in the mainstream press as a far off thing - something that will happen to future generations and in other parts of the world. From a mass public perspective, I believe that this framing resulted in over a decade of superficial attention and neglect of mounting scientific evidence. Now that the press has started framing global warming in terms of implications for us today, I think the public opinion needle is starting to move.

While on linguistics, and on comments (from yesterday), some of you may be "interested in linguistic technology (or in the rhetorical evolution of that emerging form, the weblog debate), you'll want to spend a leisurely brunch reading the whole series".

Read on...


How is that for framing?


I love it when I see people discussing framing! We mediators have been talking about the importance of effective framing for decades and we think it's powerfully important.

From a conflict resolution point of view, the way the problem is framed can have a real impact on the solutions that are visible and workable. In workplace and other conflicts, it's common for those involved to frame the problem in mutually exclusive ways, so that they're not really solving the same problem or able to see solutions that work for all. Mediators, in part, use the art of framing to help name the solvable problem, hopefully unlocking the dispute in the process.

I wrote a little bit about framing on my blog a while back. If folks are interested, they can find it at Solutions Depend on How We Frame the Problem.

This concept comes from neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and is covered comprehensively in a book titled Reframing: NLP and the Transformation of Meaning by Richard Bandler and John Grinder. Originally published in 1981, this book is revolutionary in many ways. Read it and you'll change the way you think about verbal and non-verbal communication. Still in print.



Thanks for the lead. This book lists for $60 on Amazon. Is it worth it?



Great points. It got me thinking about listening to politicians. With most of them my eyes just glaze over. There are a few though, that speak so concretely and intelligently (from both sides of the aisle) that I'm totally engrossed. For example: JFK's man to the moon speech and Ronald Reagan's tear down this wall speech. Both exhilarating. I hope we can be blessed with some solid communicators in the future. I must say, of the upcoming candidates I've heard so far - Mitt Romney seems the most coherent when he speaks (regardless of his views - he puts them across solidly). It does seem that the Republicans have a few more contenders who can 'frame' well. I'd love to see a Democrat that could really give them a run for their money. It'll certainly be a fun time leading up to the election ;)

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