Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Framing: Creating the Right Mental Impression

George Lakoff, a professor at Berkeley, is a renowned expert in cognitive linguistics. His particular expertise lies in applying linguistics to the study of public political debate.

His core thesis is that metaphors and concepts are the building blocks of thought and the mechanism by which we process reality. He says, "Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature."

In Lakoff's vernacular, we think in "frames." He writes," Every word, like elephant, evokes a frame, which can be an image or other kinds of knowledge. Elephants are large, have floppy ears and a trunk, and are associated with circuses, and so on. The word is defined relative to that frame." When I say "elephant," you cannot help but think of the characteristics noted above.

This is very important as it argues that every word we choose to use carries with it related associations, emotions, imagery, correlated ideas, values, etc. He argues that we can control the way people think and relate to our positions by the words we use and the frames (ie. related meta-associations) that we choose to employ.

In politics, he credits the Republicans with a mastery of framing - for example, the concept of "tax relief" implicitly suggests that taxes are a burden and any opposing position would be pro-tax and pro-burden.

Why is this important? How is it relevant to start-ups and the venture process?

VC is fundamentally a patter recognition and classification exercise. Every time you pitch a VC, they are, in real-time, classifying the company and opportunity into a master taxonomy. VC is an exercise in decision making by metaphor - this company is Salesforce.com for X, Youtube for Y. The evaluation process involves first classifying the opportunity into a conceptual bucket and then quickly associating the company with the attributes of the given bucket.

If you can indeed control the associations, both positive and negative, that are an inherently part of any frame, then it is vital that we choose our words very carefully. Entrepreneurs must carefully consider the frames and buckets they choose to use to describe their businesses recognizing that each chosen word carries with it either "positive" or "negative" connotations and baggage. It should be the goal of every CEO to ensure "positive" categorization.

In the VC lexicon, there are certain buckets that are minefields or "third rails." It is important to control the categorization exercise and preemptively "frame" the discussion in your favor.

Example "third rails" or "negative frames" can be either failed markets (ASP, P2P file sharing, egovernment), business models ($50m to break even), or team dynamics (husband and wife team, 15 founders, etc). These frames all evoke negative emotions, memories of capital loss, and a desire to quickly end the meeting.

When you describe your business, unconsciously the words you employ are raising a set of memories, emotions, inclinations...in the mind of your listener. Be mindful how best to control the reaction of your audience by anchoring off positive tailwinds, successful companies, and other anchors that ensure your name evokes a smile not a smirk.


  1. The husband and wife team stigma perplexes me. Seems like a lot of recent hits were husband+wife (Flickr, Bebo, Six Apart).

  2. When you think "hosted services", "software as service" or "ASP", do each of these raise a different set of associations? maybe it depends on what age you are! ASP(1997-2001); Hosted (2001-2005), SAS (2005 - ).

  3. Graeme Thickins4:43 AM

    Will, thank you for this post. I've not seen this topic addressed quite like this, in terms like this. I'm a real lover of language and linguistics, but maybe I should be a student of it, too! (Maybe we all should.)

    I have a new must-read to recommend to entrepreneurs before they even consider pitching to VCs.

  4. Will,

    Excellent post. To further the discussion, the frame of mind concept also applies to framing a company's product to its customers as opposed to just the presentation of the company to VCs. For example, a toothpaste can be framed as a Oral Health Solution or a Mouth Beautification Product. Depending on which attribute (health vs. aesthetics) holds more importance to the customer, each frame will effect perception (and sales) differently.