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Mastering the art of the reframe: put “you” into the picture

“Reframing” is a psychological therapeutic concept that undergirds a big portion of the neurolinguistic programming fad and has migrated into such diverse areas as linguistics, politics, marketing, and even corporate strategy. It is, to my mind at least, the lynchpin of successful entrepreneurship and marketing. But mastering the art of the reframe is a difficult and fraught science that rewards people who are naturally imaginative and empathic.

A “reframe,” in essence, takes a situation and simply puts a different “frame” around it. For instance, when Republicans took aim at the “inheritance tax,” a tax on living people who receive sizable inheritances (without having to really work for the money), they “reframed” the tax by calling it a “death” tax. What did the reframe do? It made it look like the tax was being paid not by the living (who are the ones who actually pay it), but by the deceased. In this successful reframe, it looks like the government is taxing people just because they died. How unfair is that?

There are no rules for reframing. Different “frames” for understanding a situation are as endless as the human capacity to imagine or feel. But the most successful reframes involve taking another person’s viewpoint and, in the art of business and marketing, that means reframing a situation with the other person’s viewpoint. I call this, “the art of the you.”

Let me start with a story sent me by my good friend, James Akamanunga, who runs a fabulous “Daily Insights” site for entrepreneurs from his home in Nigeria.

A blind boy once sat on a crowded street with a hat by his feet and, in his hands, a sign which said: “I am blind, please help.”

A man walked by, read the sign, and noticed there were very few coins in the hat. So he dropped a couple coins in the hat. But then, he took the sign from the boy, turned it around, and wrote some words on the back. He then put the sign back in the boy’s hand, but with his new words facing the crowds.

Soon the hat began to fill up. More and more people stopped to give money to the blind boy. And, later, the man returned to see how well his sign had done. The boy recognized his footsteps and asked, “Were you the one who changed my sign this morning? What did you write?”

The man said, “I wrote what you wrote.”

Indeed, he had. But he had rephrased it so that the sign said, “Today is a beautiful day and I cannot see it.”

Okay, yeah, it’s a sappy story. But what does the reframe do? It introduces the audience without having to directly and ham-handedly use the second-person pronoun. I have seen this rule from here to Bombay that all copy should be in the second person. You this, you that.

That’s a fine enough rule. But the trick to marketing is that every “frame” around a proposition or situation needs to be from the audience’s point-of-view. In the above sappy story, the frame tells the audience the situation (“I am blind”) but also introduces the audience’s perspective (“be glad in your good fortune that you can see it”).

You don’t need a “you” to successfully reframe. But, if you want to sell, make the “you” the frame for the situation.

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