You are probably familiar with the story of Tom Sawyer whitewashing his Aunt Polly’s fence.

One fine sunny morning, Aunt Polly assigned Tom this unpleasant task. As Tom toiled away, other kids interrupted their play to tease him.

Tom pretended not to be bothered and told the others that it wasn’t work, it was fun. After all, it’s not every day you get the chance to whitewash a fence.

It wasn’t long before the other boys were begging for a turn with the brush. Tom expressed doubt as to whether to let others share in his fun, which made them even more eager to do it.

Soon, all the boys in the neighbourhood were lining up for a turn and trading their prized possessions for the privilege!

Tom relaxed in the shade enjoying his windfall while the others completed his chore.

Tom Sawyer was able to persuade others to do an unpleasant task by framing it in a positive way. The other boys adopted his frame and agreed to his proposal.

A frame is a mental filter that influences the way a person views a situation. We develop frames based on our own experiences, stereotypes and cultural influences.

Most people will adopt a frame without giving it much thought. They see the world in a way that seems normal to them.

However, they can often be swayed to adopt another frame depending on word choice and situational context.

This ability to shape another’s perceptions is too powerful to ignore.

Two people can look at the same situation and interpret it differently.

One sees the glass as half-empty, the other as half-full. One sees a risk, the other an opportunity to gain.

How you see it depends on the lens through which you view the issue, or your frame.

So how do you use framing to become more persuasive?

How to frame properly

There are two ways to create a frame: with words and context.

Choose your words carefully. Words are often loaded and can have a strong impact on an audience.

Tom Sawyer refused to define painting a fence as “work”. Referring to it as work would have doomed his efforts to recruit helpers. Instead, he framed it as “fun”.

You can also look at ways to reshape the situational context. Tom Sawyer did this by suggesting that painting a fence was a rare opportunity to be relished rather than a chore to be avoided.

Consider the following ways to frame issues:

1. Problem versus opportunity

We rarely hear of “problems” in business — it sounds negative.

A problem is more likely to be framed as a challenge to be met or an opportunity to be exploited. By changing a word, you have not changed the situation, but you have changed the way people see the situation.

Just remember that your frame must be credible to be persuasive.

In the movie Apollo 13, which tells the true story of a crisis in space, the line was “Houston, we have a problem”.

Reframing it as “Houston, we have an opportunity” would not have been believable!

2. Gain maximising versus loss minimising

People behave differently depending on whether they see a proposal as an opportunity to gain something or a potential loss.

Expert negotiators know this, and they will frame a proposal in terms of what their counterpart stands to gain.

Looking at it from that perspective, your counterpart will be more likely to make generous concessions than if he were thinking in terms of what he would be giving up.

In other situations, you might choose to play upon your audience’s fear of losing out.   

3. Traditional versus cutting-edge

A fine chocolatier might emphasise its traditional approach to making chocolate, even though it is housed in a fully automated, state-of-the-art factory.

On the other hand, a printer might play up its cutting-edge technology.

Both are using their ability to choose words to influence the way others perceive them.

4. Classic versus outdated 

In 1985, Coca-Cola made the mistake of changing its amazingly successful formula in favour of “New Coke”. It had to bring back the original formula quickly to avoid making a disastrous situation even worse.

It didn’t call the original formula “Old Coke” or even “Original Coke”. It was called “Coca-Cola Classic”. Classic sounds better than old.

A master persuader thinks about how best to frame issues. The next time you find yourself asking for support from others, think of a way to make your request irresistible.

How might you influence your listeners by choosing one word rather than another? How can you frame a situation to make it more appealing to your audience?