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Should We Break Out Of The Frame Game?

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Message Steve Denning
Do we need powerful communication?

In the recent article entitled "Breaking Out of the Frame Game"*, Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Reed argue that the secret to winning a political argument is having better ideas, not in reframing issues, as some like George Lakoff have been arguing.

The idea behind "the frame game" is that frames act as cues for implicit stories: "tax relief" cues the story that taxes are bad things from which people need "relief". "Mark Foley" cues the story that the Republican leadership is both hypocritical and corrupt.

According Emanuel and Reed, "any party that writes off its defeats as a communications problem is doomed to repeat them.... The secret to a political victory isn't reframing issues, it's offering new ideas that work.*

It's hard to argue with the thought that you need good ideas to win an argument--any argument, political or otherwise.

But the notion that how you frame issues isn't important is bizarre--and obviously wrong. Clearly you need both--good ideas and good communication.

So why would Emanuel and Reed be making such argument?

Could it be that they are adopting one of the oldest framing devices in the book: being eloquent by framing themselves as lacking eloquence?

Plato began the tradition a couple of thousand years ago: his most famous book, The Republic is, among other things, a diatribe against poets and storytellers, while all the time being--guess what--a story.

Or Shakespeare's Marc Antony, in the middle of perhaps the greatest speech ever spoken, is careful to point out:

"I come not, friends, to steal away your hearts:
I am no orator, as Brutus is;
But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man."

So could it be that Emanuel and Reed are trying to use the usually-effective frame: "We're not very good at communication and framing and storytelling like our opponents: we are plain blunt men who happen to have better ideas"?

The reality is that there is no way out of the frame game. We are in it, whether we like it or not. How we frame issues does have an immense impact on the effectiveness of what we say, quite independently from the validity of our ideas.

Frames can be effective or ineffective. To give an example of an ineffective frame: Lakoff's suggestion that Democrats should reframe taxes as "membership fees" is an obvious non-starter, as is the Republican effort to reframe the Mark Foley scandal as a George Soros plot.

But one or two ineffective frames don't discredit the central point that framing is central to communication. And understanding the efforts of others to reframe the debate is crucial to getting one's own arguments heard.

The real question is not whether to get out of the frame game, but whether to frame intelligently or unintelligently, authentically or cynically, honestly or dishonestly.

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Stephen Denning is the author of several books on leadership and narrative, including The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative (Jossey-Bass, 2007), which was selected by the Financial Times as one of the best (more...)
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