Let’s say you’re a single person looking to adopt a French Bulldog. In a bizarre Because This Is A Hypothetical turn of events, there are only two dogs for you to choose from.
The first dog’s bio indicates she is a “spayed female French Bulldog, true to breed standard with minor flaws, including weight and an imperfect nictating membrane. Her correct bat ears and ability to stack have won her many ribbons but no championships. Suitable only for a pet home.”
The second dog is described as “a female French Bulldog that won’t be having any more puppies. This girl has extra dog for you to love and the silliest of faces. A former show dog, she’s now content to spend her days cuddling with you on the couch.”
If you have to pick the dog based on her bio, which dog do you choose?
Which dog you choose is based on which biography gave you information that you were (1) most interested in and (2) found most attractive. Your decision, whether you like it or not, will be influenced by how the information about the dogs was framed.
[SPOILER: It’s the same dog!]
Framing is putting information in a context that makes it more attractive for the other person to accept. It is not only about what information you present, but also how you order that information and the other information you compare it to.
Sidebar: Framing is not lying. It is not purposefully hiding or excluding information that you have an obligation to share. Doing that is just plain unethical.
As you might imagine, framing is an incredibly helpful tool when negotiating. It’s also pretty great to use when you’re trying to land a job, attract a new customer or even just sell your stuff on Etsy.
What Information You Present
Framing is more than just putting your best foot forward. For framing to really be effective, you have to understand who your audience is and what they are interested in.
Sometimes the person you are negotiating with is the decision maker and sometimes they are just reporting back to the decision maker. It’s important to establish which situation you’re in up front. You don’t want to spend a lot of time wooing Rashid the chatty executive assistant if it’s actually Tori the hard-driving finance director you have to convince.
In certain situations, like say, the internet or a convention, your audience is more amorphous. In these instances, it is helpful to know what people expect in that particular situation and frame your information accordingly.
For instance, if you are a regular internetian, viewing this web page will likely burn your eyes.
It runs so contrary to what you expect of a web page that you end up paying more attention to why the page is bad than to the information it is trying to convey. Avoid this problem by finding some examples of highly professional presentations – the most visited booth, the popular website – and take notes on your own reactions to specific parts it. Figure out how your own stuff, in your own style, can elicit similar responses.
Making the information interesting to your audience means you need to have some idea of what they find interesting. Use all of that great information you’ve collected asking questions to figure out what this person finds most valuable. You only have so much energy you can put into each negotiation, don’t waste it talking about things the other person is completely uninterested in.
If you’re in the midst of the negotiation and you’re having a hard time pegging down what the other person is interested in, pay attention to the questions they are asking. If the questions seem to indicate the person is more interested in the cost of the project than in the timeline, it is perfectly OK to ask them if that’s true. If they say it is, focus the information you provide on cost and how different choices will impact that cost.
The Order of Information
Remembering things is hard, so don’t offer people too many choices if you want them to really consider each of them. Instead, either limit the choices to just a few or chunk the choices up into smaller (meaningful) groups and present them sequentially. Nine different choices? Three sets of three choices presented one set at a time.
Another aspect of not being able to juggle too many pieces of information at once is that we tend to remember the last thing we heard. So if you are trying to frame one particular choice as the most attractive choice, offer it last.
It is easier to understand new information if it’s presented in a familiar context. Look at all the companies and government agencies introducing themselves to folks via Twitter (@FCC does a pretty fantastic job of this, honestly). Familiarity gives people confidence that they can understand new information.
Placing information in a familiar context makes it more accessible to the person you’re communicating with. Which makes it easier for them to understand and pay attention to you, which is sort of what you’re going for. It’s important to do this even if it’s not how you would want to receive the information. Because you’re not talking to yourself.
Also, this should be intuitive but don’t put information in a context that is radically dissimilar to the info you’re trying to convey. Doing so might draw attention to what you’re saying, but it won’t be the type of attention you want. They’ll be trying to figure out why you started talking about rush rates in the midst of a paragraph about your professional background instead of paying attention to either the rate or your experience.
Framing information is likely something you’ve done since you were wee (“Mommy, if you really loved me, you’d let me have another cookie.”). To a certain extent we do it intuitively, but the quality of how we frame things can vary wildly. Thinking about doing it consciously will improve the quality of how you frame things for people. And wouldn’t be nice if everyone started saying, “Well, when you put it that way, you’re right. Let’s do it your way.”?