Apple and Steve Jobs – The Power of Framing

This post is the finishing of an idea I’ve had for quite a while regarding one of my favorite communications principles: framing. I was set to write this purely from an academic perspective when a couple of serendipitous items crossed my attention.

First, Apple unleashed the Macintosh 26 years ago today. (And as an early adopter I might say: Holy Kaw. I remember it clearly.) The news led me to a now classic video of  Steve Jobs introducing the new product. Please take note of the first line: “There have only been two milestone products in our industry.” We shall return to this in a moment.

Second, I happened today to see this nugget about the upcoming (alleged?) Apple tablet: Steve Jobs Says Apple Tablet “Will Be The Most Important Thing I’ve Ever Done.”

Cue light bulb and sound effect.

Before I can explain, I need to step back and talk about framing. It’s one of my favorite ideas from communications, at once among the simplest concepts to understand and the most difficult to master. Here’s one definition:


In communication theory, and sociology, framing is a process of selective control over the individual’s perception of media, public, or private communication, in particular the meanings attributed to words or phrases. Framing defines how an element of rhetoric is packaged so as to allow certain interpretations and rule out others. Media frames can be created by the mass media or by specific political or social movements or organizations. The concept is generally attributed to the work of Erving Goffman, especially his 1974 book, Frame analysis: An Essay on the organization of experience.

Source: Framing (communication theory) – Psychology Wiki.

Deetz, Tracy and Simpson, in Leading Organizations Through Transition, defined it this way: “Framing refers to the ways leader can use their language to shape or modify particular interpretations of organizational events thereby directing likely responses. … [F]raming focuses on the everyday communication of organizational metaphors, stories, artifacts, and myths that shape interpretations.”

We’re all familiar with this concept to some extent. A classic trope in TV shows has the doctor ask the family member to sit down to hear some news; the news is framed. In other words, “Let me tell you I’m about to give you some bad news.” Then I deliver it. The theory, I guess, in TV land is that the family member gets a chance to absorb that something bad is coming so that he or she won’t faint or overreact.

However, framing is far more subtle. From anthropology, we know that our frames of reference are “socially constructed”–that is to say, we agree on them as cultures through a complex series of negotiations and countless acts of communication. Our tone, word choice, sentence structure, volume, even our clothes–all contribute to telling the recipient of a message how the creator of the message intends it to be read. This is why satire (like that of Jonathon Swift) is so effective–it starts with framing typical of something we’re all familiar with–carefully reasoned argumentation–and turns it upside down. It is much more effective as a result of its novelty.

Framing has tremendous power. A friend of mine who is a genius at headline writing once told us about Chaplin’s rule – that life is a series of entrances and exits. I’ve found this to be a truth – write a great lead, find a great conclusion, and very little else will be remembered. The story is framed. Deetz et al use the example of a manager telling employees that something is “important”–using the word gives the activity a higher value than it would if it were simply a “to do.” Even something like sequence can have meaning. As Spinal Tap’s manager notes: “I’ve told them a hundred times: put ‘Spinal Tap’ first and ‘Puppet Show’ last.”

Framing is a “meta” activity. It is information about information. It is a set of suggested rules to the recipient that helps him or her structure a reading of your message. It requires trust. This makes framing exceptionally difficult to work with, and many communications calamities arise when people inadvertently frame things the wrong way or aren’t aware of the frame within which they are working.

So what about that light bulb?

Well, go back to Steve’s presentation. Take those words – “there have only been two milestone products in our industry” – and think about how Jobs is asking you to read what’s about to be said. Then watch as, time and time again, he frames whatever he is about to say next. He leads us through his presentation from point to point always telling us what he is about to tell us. Always leave them wanting more.

And then consider his statements recently that his new tablet will be “the most important thing I’ve ever done.” This is going to be revolutionary, he is saying. He wants you to read this as not just another piece of computer equipment, but as a grand experience that’s about to be unveiled, something that will transform you. He is framing this in terms of his past framing. How’s that for postmodern?

Apple, and more specifically Steve Jobs, are masters of framing. They knew that they needed to put a snappy logo – not a company’s name – on the PC to make it friendlier (and added a little spice by referencing the tree of knowledge). They knew it needed a smiley face when it started up so that you’d interpret its intentions as positive. They got that computers needed to come in friendlier colors and shapes and use interfaces that look like things in the real world. They knew you were looking at PCs the wrong way. And that’s their genius – framing. Jobs smiles and says, This is going to be “insanely great,” and we’re urged to forget reason and just enjoy.

Framing is something that can be used for good or for otherwise. I hope, though, that you won’t think it’s not needed. Everyone on the planet has had the experience of asking others if they’re serious about some statement. It’s not always easy to figure out. Among trusted, informed and critically minded groups, framing can be a very valuable activity. For audiences, being aware of frames can help avoid fleecing. You really don’t have a choice. Not picking a frame is itself a form of framing.

So what examples of framing do you see? How could you better use framing in your business or organization?

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