How to Win Any Argument
To win any argument, you must be able to control the frame. Politicians have known this truth for a long time. If you can’t control the frame, you have to work within the frame you are given, and that may put you at a disadvantage.
The frame is a term that refers to the context and assumptions inherent in your argument. The frame is usually not made explicit when you are making your argument. Instead, it stays in the background, and it defines what is important and what is unimportant, what is open for discussion and what is not. In the context of a product, the frame defines what customer needs the product addresses, and why customers should buy your product.
There is a wonderful illustration of framing in an episode of “Mad Men.” In this episode, a group of ad execs are struggling to come up with a marketing campaign for a cigarette company. At the time the show is set, medical studies have just started to show that cigarette smoking is linked to cancer, and all the cigarette companies are panicked, hoping their clever advertising companies can somehow defuse this bomb.
Towards the end of an almost-disastrous meeting with their cigarette company client, the show’s hero has a breakthrough. In a moment of inspiration, he changes the frame. Cigarette smoking is no longer about the health benefits or drawbacks of cigarettes, and it’s certainly not about whether the new studies are valid medical studies, it’s about the TASTE! He comes up with a slogan: “Ours Are Toasted.”
This new frame implies that, yes, cigarette smoking is detrimental to human health. But, that’s old news. In fact, it’s so unimportant that it’s not even mentioned in the ads. In other words, the health benefits _don’t matter_. It’s the taste, the experience of smoking, the enjoyment of it that matters. That’s how a frame works. It excludes that which works against your argument while focusing on the strengths of your argument.
Cigarette companies that focus on the health aspects of smoking are in a no-win situation. They can’t credibly argue that smoking is benign from a human health perspective. However, cigarette companies that focus on TASTE (or fun, relaxation, or image) have a good chance of convincing large numbers of people that smoking their product is better than not smoking, and it’s better than smoking the competitor’s product.
More About the Frame
The market leader tends to want to preserve their position, so they are usually unwilling to risk changing the frame (which is usually built around the particulars of their product, and often misses significant customer needs). In this scenario, you have three fundamental choices: you can argue that your product is better, you can argue that your product is different, or you can do both.
Here are a few more characteristics of frame. As already discussed, the frame defines what is in (subject to discussion) and what is out (ignored or not subject to discussion).
Every word in the English language is like a handle on a file cabinet drawer. When a word is used, the hearer or reader (usually subconsciously) opens that drawer and examines all the potential personal meanings of that word. This is a very complex process, and although its particulars are somewhat unique to each individual, there is a significant cultural component that causes culturally-similar individuals to have similar contents in their individual word-meaning drawers. When you use a frame, you must be aware of the contents of the audience’s word-meaning drawers.
The frame is very concerned with using the right words. Words that associate with meanings that hinder your argument will be excluded from your frame. For example, if your audience associates the word _licensing_ with a headache-inducing way to pay for software, then you should exclude that word from your frame. If your audience associates the word _enterprise_ with successful organizations that use the best, most capable software, then your frame may include the word _enterprise_, and may prefer that word to words like _organization_ or _company_. If your audience is a group of serious professionals, your frame would exclude flowery or insincere language. To use the right words, you need to understand your audience and what’s in their word-association drawers.
The frame is generally transparent. That means that your writing will rarely, if ever, make reference to the frame. You may _support_ your frame by arguing a certain way, but you will almost never reference the frame itself. For example, if you are creating a white paper about a software product, you may argue that the ease of use matters more than the extensibility of the product. This argument may support your frame, but it does not explicitly reference the frame!
Better vs. Different
Assume that you are dealing with a strong competitor whose product outsells yours. They’re number one, and you are number two. This is actually a pretty good position to be in, from the perspective of framing. The market leader tends to want to preserve their position, so they are usually unwilling to risk changing the frame (which is usually built around the particulars of their product, and often misses significant customer needs). In this scenario, you have three fundamental choices: you can argue that your product is better, you can argue that your product is different, or you can do both.
If you argue that your product is better than your competitors without also changing the frame, you will remind people of someone’s younger sibling–trying to excel in all the same activities that the older sibling excelled in, listening to the same music, etc, but coming up a bit sad because you’re an imitation. It is my belief that unless your product is completely, obviously, and amazingly better than your competitor’s, you need to try to change the frame.
Changing the frame is a strong move because it taps into the worldview-creating power wielded by parents and other authority figures, but it’s worth doing because it says your product is both better and different. It’s different, because it addresses different needs than your competitor’s products. A well-crafted frame tells your audience that your products addresses their real needs, while the competitor’s product fails to address some of these needs. And it’s better, because although it may not have the same features as the competitor’s product, it has the features they really need.
Another great example of changing the frame is Apple’s iPhone. It still boggles my mind to remember that people lined up on the sidewalk outside AT&T retail locations to purchase a five hundred dollar phone. I believe we will all look back on that moment in time as a significant frame change because Apple convinced a large enough number of people that they didn’t need a mobile phone with ancillary computing capabilities. Instead, they needed a pocketable mobile computer with phone capabilities. This was not a small frame change, but Apple was successful in presenting their case, and in creating a device that backed up their claims pretty well.
It’s interesting to look back Steve Ballmer’s reaction to Apple’s frame change:
Although we don’t know whether Ballmer’s reaction was genuine or not, he does refuse to engage the core question: Apple was introducing a mobile computer that could make phone calls while the competition was focused on making phones that have some ancilliary computing capabilities that were focused on email. Ballmer’s refusal to engage the frame is a marketing mistake. His response would have been much more effective if he had focused on how Microsoft’s frame differs from Apple’s frame. Something like this:
Apple has just introduced a mobile computer that can make phone calls. While there may be a market for this, we know that what business customers really want is an email-focused phone with a hardware keyboard. Apple’s product is not focused on this market, and it’s too expensive, so I think it will have only moderate success in the market.
Controlling the frame is vital. Unless your product is a niche of one, you will have competitors. And any competitor with a moderately sophisticated marketing program is not only explaining what the product is, but also why customers need to buy it. The “why you need to buy it” argument is tied in with the frame you choose. If you simply go along with the frame your competitor is already using, you are asking potential customers to judge your company and product with a scorecard that your competitor created.
Competition is tough enough without limiting yourself this way. You should at least get to create the scorecard your product is judged with. You do that by making sure you correctly frame your argument. If you choose a good frame, one that resonates with your customers, you will be more successful at winning the most crucial argument: you should buy this product because _____________ !
The Word Lions create well-framed, persuasive technical content. Let us know if we can create training or white papers that help you frame things to your advantage.
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