Don't Think of an Elephant

Strange title for a New York Times bestseller, isn't it, but this little book has lit a fire under the Democratic party which had no idea how it lost the last election. The author, George Lakoff, is a linguist. He studies language and how it works in society and especially inside of our heads.

In this 120-page book, Lakoff argues that the Republicans won by framing the debate about everything in the election. And framing is so powerful a tool that it got people to vote for Bush and against their own self interest. "Many Americans voted their moral identity and values, often at the expense of the economic interests." Such is the power of framing.

Howard Dean, in the foreword, says: "Language matters. Americans who want to be first to set the agenda need to be quick, and must understand the use of language."

Whether you're a politician running for election, a corporate leader trying to shift the corporate direction, or just a parent trying to orient your children, you might want to learn more about framing and reframing.


Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. Anytime you hear a word, like elephant, it invokes a frame. You might see an elephant or think of the African elephant or the smaller-eared Indian elephant. You might see Indiana Jones riding an elephant. Just one little word,elephant, pulled all of this stuff into your conscious awareness.

The phrase: "Don't think of an elephant" forces you to think of one. As Lakoff says: "Richard Nixon found that out the hard way. He stood before the nation and said, 'I am not a crook.' And everybody thought about him as a crook.

The founder of Napster shared his software for sharing music files with the following caveat: "Don't share this software with others. It's a beta version." Napster took off like wildfire.

Framing Tax Cuts
Lakoff says, "On the day that George W. Bush arrived in the White House, the phrase tax relief started coming out." Think about this frame:

  • For there to be relief, there must be an affliction, an afflicted party and a hero who relieves the affliction.
  • People who try to stop the hero are villains.
  • Taxation must be an affliction.

See how easy it is to set the whole agenda for any debate using just a few key words? This is the essence of what is called viral marketing. Soon the Democrats were talking about tax relief too, reinforcing the Republican message.

Using your opponent's frame is a trap that draws you into their worldview! Say what you are for, not what you are against.

Facts Can't Fight Frames
The tremendous power of frames comes from their ability to reject facts that are contrary to their view. If the facts don't fit the frame, they bounce off. The Democrats tried to use facts to convince the public that tax cuts would only eliminate social programs that benefit everyone, but it didn't work because the facts didn't fit the existing frame of tax relief.

Once your frame is accepted into the discourse, everything you say is just common sense.

Framing is about ideas and values, Lakoff says. And it's not just spin; it's not just words; it's about fresh ideas and metaphors that offer a new and better way of looking at the issue.

Framing in Health Care
I've been working with a hospital to "improve patient throughput." A shorter length of stay is often better for the patient (less chance of picking up nasty infections) and better for the hospital's revenue. (Did you know that hospitals are never paid for the day a patient is discharged?)

Think about the phrase "Improve Patient Throughput." What does that invoke? For me it brings up "hospital as a factory." It brings up images of someone with a stopwatch measuring how long it takes for a nurse to do something. It brings up old frames like: haste makes waste. And I suspect it does for most of the hospital's nursing staff.

To establish a frame, you will want to understand what your audience values. What do nurses value? They value helping patients and patient safety. They are measured on patient satisfaction. They also feel overworked, because of the nursing shortage.

It's not that the nurses aren't working fast enough, it's that the patient is idle 90% of the time. If you've ever been in a hospital, you know this is true. Too much time is spent waiting for the next step in patient care. What we've learned from the application of Lean thinking in manufacturing and service industries is that faster movement of the product (i.e., the patient in this case) reduces the chance of error by 50% or more. So, what we want to do is accelerate the patient, not the nurses.

Here's the frame I've decided to test drive in the health care environment:

Accelerate the patient's experience.

It's all about the patient and their experience, not the factory or its workers. It makes you look at the hospital through the patient's eyes. It evokes empathy. It aligns with the nurses' existing values. How will it work? I haven't tested it yet, but I'll start rolling it out shortly.

Get the idea?

  1. Start from your values and the values of your audience
  2. Think about what idea you want to convey. What word or short phrase can you use that will evoke the frame you want? As BusinessWeek said when reviewing Lakoff's book: It's the Sound Bite Stupid!
  3. Evaluate the images and thoughts that come to mind when you say the word or phrase. How can you tune it up to get the ideal mindset to pop up from this simple phrase?
  4. Keep going until you find the phrase that triggers the kind of thinking you want.
  5. Repeat the sound bite endlessly until it takes root and enters into general conversation.


If the other side already has established a frame, then you will want to reframe it. Take Social Security for example. The President says Social Security is in trouble. Based on information from Lakoff's book, a good reframe might be: "It isn't that Social Security is in trouble, it's that the President has been robbing the Social Security piggy bank to pay for the war in Iraq. To date, that's $220 billion dollars that should have been set aside for our children's future."

Sadly, once you get to reframing you're facing an uphill battle. The other side has a frame and you're just trying to establish a competing frame. What viral marketers have found is that it's much harder to displace an existing ideavirus than it is to get the mind to accept a new one. Why? New frames usually bounce off existing frames.

An ounce of framing is worth a pound of reframing.

Reframe the Question
Anytime someone asks you a question, it always contains their worldview, their frame. If their frame doesn't match your's, trying to answer the question from their point of view only reinforces their frame. Reframe the question. If you listen to any of the "talking heads" news programs, you'll often hear the interviewer ask one question and the "expert" will answer a different one. You can do the same.

Never answer a question framed from your opponent's point of view.
Always reframe the question to fit your values and your frames. 
Ask: Wouldn't it be better if...?

Next month we'll explore the tools of reframing. Remember to have fun and also remember that words matter

Rights to reprint this article in company periodicals is freely given with the inclusion of the following tag line: "© 2008-2024 Jay Arthur, the KnowWare® Man, 888-468-1537, ."