Framing Is Everything

We can explain the advantages of our products or services until we are blue in the face. Unless we are able to get people to take action, sign the contract, and do business with us, we have accomplished nothing. All your effort will be wasted if you can’t get people to follow through on their commitments and act. It is up to you to motivate action.

You need to move from abstract agreement to taking concrete steps. Sometimes this is the one-time action of signing on the dotted line or turning over their credit card information. Often, though, change requires consistent action over time. Deciding to stay in school or get in shape requires daily action. For an organization to decide to continue using you as their meeting planner, or for meeting planners to decide to continue using your services, it often requires continual recommitment. They can change their minds at many times along the way.

Change the frame

This is why I hate the term, “closing the sale.” This implies that the interaction is over and there is no need for further contact. I prefer to look at the call to action as a commitment to work together or the beginning of a relationship.

There is no such thing as unframed information. Everything is relative.

Getting people to take action is often contingent on how we frame things. There is no such thing as unframed information. Everything is relative. We make sense of the world around us through comparisons. If I told you that someone was 5’9”, would you say that person is tall or short? Naturally, that would depend on framing. If this person is a child, that would be tall; for an adult it might not be. For a woman this might be tall; for a man it might be short. If this person were in Europe, it might be considered short, but in Asia it could be considered tall. More directly, who is this person standing next to? The best way to make yourself taller is to stand next to people who are shorter than you. (That is why I prefer to hang out with ugly people).

Sally Struthers famously called on people to donate to the Christian Children’s Fund by saying that, “for the price of a cup of coffee a day” you could feed a child in need. This was a brilliant way of framing the call to action. The average American spends $358 a year on coffee. For $358 you could buy a decent television. Had she said that “for the price of a new television you can feed a child,” it would not have been nearly as effective. Even though it was the same amount of money, it would have seemed very expensive. A cup of coffee a day, however, seems inconsequential.

With the large sums of money trading hands in the meetings industry it is easy to forget about framing. $100,000 for a meeting is a lot of money and could very easily result in objections from management. Only $300 per attendee, however, is much easier to justify. $20,000 for a hotel or other supplier’s services might seem expensive, but when framed as being half as much as a competitor, it seems like a steal. Framing is everything.

Frame to motivate and influence

People are more motivated by losses than gains. It’s always nice to have more, but we generally know that we can survive with what we have. It can be scary to face the risk of losing what we have and deal with an uncertain future. For this reason, framing an action as avoiding loss is often better than framing it as a potential gain. In one study, people were asked to register for an event. One group was given a discount for registering early. The other was given a late fee if they didn’t register in time. Even though the money ended up being exactly the same, more people were motivated when threatened with a loss through the late fee, than when motivated with the gain through the discount.

In many cases, emphasizing the possibility of a loss is a better way of getting someone to take action. Unless the potential gain is far greater than the loss, in the lottery for example, people are often inclined to stick with the status quo. When it comes to the potential of winning millions of dollars in a lottery, the minor loss of a few dollars seems inconsequential. Even though players have a miniscule chance of winning, by focusing on the potential and encouraging them to visualize their potential jackpot, the lottery organizers get millions of people to bet on a loser.

When it comes to more equal bets, however, the risks are often more powerful than the gains. When influencing people to save for retirement, a fear of living in poverty is more powerful than visions of wealth. When persuading people to get in shape, fear of disease is often better than visions of muscles. And sometimes emphasizing how people will miss out on a product or service is more useful than focusing on the benefits.

Reduce the number of choices

No matter how you go about framing your argument or calling someone to take action, make it simple. Research shows that when you give people too many options, making a choice is much harder. In one study, people in one group were offered samples from six types of jam while people in another group were offered twenty-four types of jam. Only three percent of people with more choices bought, while thirty percent of people with fewer choices bought. Or to frame that differently, ten times as many people bought when they had fewer choices.

The more choices there are, the more difficult it is to decide.

Trader Joe’s, a small American grocery store chain, has taken this psychology of choice to heart. While an average grocery store typically stocks about 50,000 items, Trader Joe’s only carries about 4,000 and most of them are their own brand. There is no reason to force customers to choose from a wide selection of similar products and competing brands when one will do. Thanks in part to their limited selection, Trader Joe’s sells more than twice as much per square foot as Whole Foods.

The more choices there are, the more difficult it is to decide. Our goal should be to streamline the decision making process. Don’t make people redirect valuable mental energy or motivation toward deciding which of the many options to choose. Allow them to focus on one thing; taking action right now.


This is an excerpt from Carl Christman’s bestselling book, How to Read Minds & Influence People. Carl is a teacher, author, and speaker. He plays with language, psychology and non-verbal communication to educate and entertain audiences.