Business Advice

Avoid elephants and frame a message that sticks

Michel Hogan /

In art class, Maybelle prepared to present her work. The class project was to design a poster so people would take action. The story continues in Chip Kidd’s book The Cheese Monkeys:


“Maybelle walked to the front of the room … up went her poster. She’d had it printed by a local carnival show-print letter press shop. Big black wood-type letters were set against a rainbow split font background that was yellow at the top and faded to orange, red, purple, and finally blue, at the bottom.

It said: ‘Whatever you do. Don’t think of elephants’.

‘It’s something my grandfather used to say,’ she offered, meekly. ‘It always made me … think of …’

The story continues as the lecturer Winter reacts to her work. Winter went to the window. Energised, he threw it open and barked at some hapless passerby: ‘Hey!’

We heard a muffled ‘what?’ — an older man’s voice. Winter thrust the poster out into space.

‘Look at this!’

A beat and then he asked: ‘So? What does it make you think of?’

‘Uh, elephants?’

‘Right! Hah! Go Away!’”


And right there is what’s called a frame. Once you read the word elephants, you can’t not think of them. They are there, in all their pachydermic glory, trunks and ears waving. It’s no use saying ‘it’s an elephant but …’, because once you utter ‘elephant’ the game is over. It’s elephants all the way.

A recent Fast Company article about Professor George Lakoff’s book Don’t think of an elephant reminds us “when trying to get your point across, refrain from using the other side’s language. Doing so will activate and strengthen their frames and undermine your own views”.

The idea is most famously applied in politics; however, it is also relevant for businesses trying to get their message across to customers, employees and any stakeholders.

So what exactly is framing? In his book Lakoff describes it:

“You can’t see frames. They are part of what cognitive scientists call the ‘cognitive unconscious’ — structures in our brains that we cannot consciously access, but know by their consequences: the way we reason and what counts as common sense. We also know frames through language. All words are defined relative to conceptual frames. When you hear a word, its frame (or collection of frames) is activated in your brain … Because language activates frames, new language requires new frames. Thinking differently requires speaking differently.”

If the words you use erect a wall between what you want something to mean and what people already think, then you’re probably using the wrong frame. If the thing you want people to know requires a ‘but’ then you’re probably using the wrong frame.

In a famous political example, President Richard Nixon memorably stood up in a media conference during the Watergate investigation and declared: “I am not a crook.” What do you suppose happened next? Yep. Everyone associated him with the word ‘crook’. A better frame might have been ‘I am a good man’ (although doubtful people would have believed him, but that’s a different article).

Sometimes discussions about words can feel like semantics. However, if you are trying to get people to hear your message, unless the language has the frame you want, using it can be downright detrimental. People will respond to what the frame tells them. It’s hard enough to get your message across, and you just made the hill you are climbing twice as steep.

Of course, depending which side of the frame you are on, it can work for you. Words can give people a familiar reference point, which helps your message when it is in your favour. It acts as a short circuit and takes less effort to get more information across.

So what’s this got to do with your brand result? Plenty. If you want people to care about what you care about, ensuring your message gets through is step one. And if people don’t respond to what you say, a good place to start is the frame.

So is your frame helping or hurting you? And remember whatever you do, don’t think of an elephant …

See you next week.

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Michel Hogan

Michel is an independent brand counsel advising organisations on the risk to their purpose and values of making promises they can’t keep — with a strong, resilient organisation and brand as the result. You can find Michel at or you can follow her on Twitter at @michelhogan.