The following is a conversation between Nat Kendall Taylor, Chief Executive Officer of FrameWorks Institute, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City. 

Denver:  We have all been told at one time or another to sell an idea or convince someone of a particular point of view, we need to reframe the issue, but to do this around social justice issues such as immigration, criminal justice, homelessness, addiction, and poverty, that’s hard stuff and takes rigorous research.

There is a nonprofit organization dedicated to doing this difficult work and has helped to produce some very significant outcomes. It’s called the FrameWorks Institute, and it’s a pleasure to have with us this evening, their chief executive officer, Nat Kendall-Taylor. Good evening, Nat,  and welcome to The Business of Giving.

Nat Kendall Taylor, Chief Executive Officer of FrameWorks Institute

Nat: Thank you very much. Nice to be here. 

Denver: Tell us about the FrameWorks Institute and the mission of the organization. 

Nat: Sure. The FrameWorks Institute is actually in its 20th year this year, coming to the end of its 20th year. We’re a nonprofit organization. We describe ourself as a social science communications think tank. That’s a mouthful and kind of ironic, given that we do communications and struggled to come up with a short, concise, awesome way of talking about what we do. But we are a group of about 30 largely social scientists. I’m an anthropologist by training, but our staff consists of people who are political scientists, and sociologists, and social psychologists, and linguists.

And what we do, is we study how people think about social issues and really kind of the deep common ways that underlie opinions and attitudes. And then we study how the way that people present information shifts those deep patterns of thinking. 

Denver: And specifically you would be a psychological anthropologist. Tell us a little bit more about what that is. 

Nat: That’s right. And if you’re someone who knows what a psychological anthropologist is, Congratulations! There’s one or two of you out there in the world, and that’s about it.  And my parents are not part of that one or two. 

Denver: What do you do? 

Nat: I’ve been doing framing work for about 13 years now. And in that work, I am centrally interested as a psychological anthropologist in the way that people use culture to think:  how people use culture to process information, to make meaning of messages that they receive, to kind of take on information and use it to reach decisions about how to think about issues, what to do about them,  and also kind of how to feel about the problems that we face as a society.

Before I started to do framing work, I used that same approach to do some really different stuff, primarily on the Swahili coast of Kenya, studying how families with children with epilepsy think about that condition, and how culture influences the way that they make decisions about whether and where to seek treatment.

Denver: You know, you just mentioned framing, and framing can get bantered around quite a lot to the point you don’t even know what it means. So what is framing, and why is it important? 

Nat: Framing is certainly among a host of other terms. Narrative change being another one of these things.  

Denver: Innovation.

Nat: Innovation,  where it becomes so ubiquitous that it loses any and all meaning that it ever once had.

Denver: Right. 

Nat: And so when I talk about framing, when FrameWorks talks about framing, what we mean is the ways in which decisions in how you present information affect people’s perceptions and behaviors. That’s it simply. The choices that you make in how you communicate your messages, and how those choices — both big and small — have impacts, have effects on what people think, how they feel and what they are or are not willing to do.

And sometimes those are kind of the big obvious choices about whether you frame messages in terms of innovation or responsible management or fairness or success. And sometimes they’re really small choices that you make in terms of, for example, how you use pronouns, right? On the issue of immigration, for example, whether you say, “us” and “them,” “they” and “those,” or whether you say, “we” and “ours” are really significant choices when it comes to a lot of the issues…the social justice issues that we work on. 

Denver: Very interesting. How do you think about communications? What is your mindset? Are you trying to maybe target a particular audience, or is it broader than that? Do you have a time frame in mind? Tell us your thinking about all that. 

Nat: Yes, so one of the ironies about me doing work on communications is that I’m not trained in communications. But I think it’s probably a pretty different, sometimes that’s good different, not all the time different way of thinking about communications. So I’m centrally interested, as you could imagine, being an anthropologist, I’m interested in culture. I’m interested in how the way that we talk, the choices that we make in the way that we talk, and how those choices kind of persistently and consistently advanced into the public conversation can actually shift culture and change how we think about issues. That is my central preoccupation. I’m less interested with audience segmentation, fundraising, electoral communications.  I’m really interested in how the way that we talk, and talking in different ways, when a lot of people start to talk in different ways, how those changes can actually shift how we think and behave as a culture.

And I’m interested less so in terms of kind of product communication, and I’m interested in social issue communication.  

Denver: Well, you have a longer view. I mean most people are trying to have a message and get a donation or have somebody do something, but you’re really looking for that tectonic plate and shifting that in the culture.

Nat: And I think that’s a frustrating thing sometimes. I think a lot of times when people approach someone who works in communications, they are looking for that more immediate…

Denver: Instant results!

Nat: I say this, you do that… 

Denver: Exactly. 

Nat: Done. And I think it’s a frustration for some, our staff included, myself included sometimes, that the work that we do on communications is not lickety-split.

it’s not a 6-month long advertising campaign that has a wicked awesome bumper sticker that makes change turn on a dime. It’s the long social movement perspective. 

Denver: You know, so often when people communicate a message, advocating to change a behavior or promote a positive social change, it not only doesn’t work, sometimes it can have exactly the opposite effect. Can you give us an example where this has happened? 

Nat: Yeah. Unfortunately the examples abound on this, and it is almost every issue. So I’ve worked on 40 social issues over the last 13 years. And almost everyone has this what we call, or what the field calls either a “backfire” or a “boomerang effect.” You think you’re saying one thing, and it’s heard; and when it’s heard, it sends people in a very different direction. 

One of my favorites is on the issue of early childhood and early childhood development where FrameWorks has done a lot of work over its 20-year history. We have tested this frame that the field uses less now, but 5 to 10 years ago used quite extensively around vulnerability, right? So the idea is that if I can make you see how vulnerable young children are, you will run tripping over your feet to support the policies and  the resource allocations for which I’m advocating. 

And we have found, and other people have found consistently, that while at some level, that makes logical sense, when you actually frame issues of early childhood in terms of vulnerability, it depresses people’s support for those policies. It makes the issues seem like less of an important, less of a salient social issue. And when you see this work empirically, when you see this in research, you realize really powerfully with kind of this hand-to-your head-oh-moment  where the field has been investing in this strategy for a long time without evidence or data. Kind of based on gut or guesswork, and with good intentions.

Denver: Oh, for sure. 

Nat: But in so doing, they are advancing a frame that not only wastes their very valuable communications, real estate and resources, but uses those limited resources in a way that disadvantages and works against the very goals that they have.

Denver: Nothing would have been better. 

Nat: Nothing would’ve been better. Yeah, that’s exactly right. 

Denver: You know, one of the most frequently cited examples of changing a framework to achieve a desired outcome would be the campaign for marriage equality. Tell us how it was originally positioned, and then how that frame changed, which ultimately changed people’s minds about the issue.

Nat: Yeah. So the first thing to say is that  I have a little impostor syndrome going on right now. I certainly know about this example. It is, as you’re saying, kind of the canonical, seminal example of a frame change, but I also want to be very clear that this is not work that I worked on or that FrameWorks worked on.

There are some very committed communications researchers, who I know, who did this work. And I don’t want to seem like  I’m claiming credit for work that I wasn’t involved with. But the reason why it’s used as such a kind of hallmark example is: it’s a great example of a frame change, right?

So for a long time, the field had been advancing kind of a right spaced legal frame for marriage equality that individuals, across the board, deserve to have the legal right to marry. And that was not an effective frame as people well know, that advancing that frame and being disciplined in it did not lead to the changes that advocates and people working on that issue sought.

And it was actually through communications research, extended communications research, ongoing communications research that people in that movement found an alternative frame. And it was not one that evoked a call for equal rights, but it was an evocation of love and caring and the kinds of feelings that we all have and value in the relationships that we have.

And so, once the field found evidence that that was kind of a game changer, the really important thing is how disciplined and consistent the shift was. So people got on that page, and they got on the same page, and they advanced that frame– once they had found it and found it to be powerful in a coherent and in a collaborative and a consistent and persistent way– that has led to some shifts in understanding that issue.

And I think the jury is still out as to whether those changes that have been, those positive changes, those gains that have been achieved on the issue of marriage equality are really translating into other areas of the issue that really matter. But I’m optimistic about that, and it is a great example where people were talking in one way that wasn’t working. The frame shifted. It shifted thinking and kind of unlocked the ability to achieve policy change, which then is now feeding back and shaping culture and how people think. 

Denver: And it did happen, relatively speaking, pretty quickly after that frame change occurred. Since the beginning of  time, we have been trying to get kids to stop smoking with very, very limited success. And over the last 10, 20 years, I mean it has dropped precipitously. Was there a frame change there that helped that to occur? 

Nat: So you just asked about the two kind of nicest, cleanest, most awesome examples of where you started, which is why framing matters. And so it’s great to have these examples where there’s a before; there’s a change, and there’s an after. And tobacco is another one where– and I think it’s really important to emphasize the fact that both in marriage equality and in tobacco, this discovery of a new frame was not accidental. People didn’t stumble into this. They were committed and did very careful research when it came to these things.

But for a long time, as we all know, tobacco was framed by tobacco and ironically by advocates as an individual vice. And framed in that way, responsibility accrues or is attributed to individuals. If it’s an individual vice, then it’s your responsibility to stop and do the things that you should. And the frame change that occurred was the shift from individual vice to defective product. And once that changed, and you can start to see it, you sort of see it in your own mind that once you start seeing tobacco as a defective product rather than an individual vice, there’s a shift in how you attribute responsibility, right?

So it goes from you as a smoker being responsible, to the industry being responsible. And the key is that once that change happens, a whole bunch of solutions that don’t make sense when you’re thinking about it as an individual vice start to make sense when you see it as a defective product. So regulation is entirely appropriate when you’re dealing with a defective product, but misses the mark when it’s framed as an individual vice.

So that change in framing shifts responsibility and again plays this kind of unlocking role. And making a whole bunch of more public health level solutions imminently plausible and very supportable . 

Denver: Well, let’s talk about another individual vice perhaps, which could be addiction because that is being framed as individual suffering and bad choices. And the only solution is to make better decisions and have stronger will. It’s sort of the Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” determination. So the opioid issue is often framed in that fashion. Now, what is wrong with that, and what can be done to change that framing? 

Nat: Well, I mean, it’s very similar to tobacco, right?  Addiction, in general, but the kind of specific issue of opioid addiction, more specifically, has been plagued by this sense of individual will, responsibility, choice,  discipline. Now, in part, it’s so hard to shift those because they are such foundational ways of thinking in our culture, right? So bootstraps, John Wayne…Jay Z -ism… however you want to say it, is a core tenet of American culture… has always been, and I think is and will always be.  But part of the answer to shifting, and I think in some interesting ways, advocates have gotten much better at this on issues of addiction and opioid addiction, in particular, in allowing people to see the conditions that surround individuals and that lead to and keep individuals trapped in these patterns of addiction. And so I think that part of the answer for shifting mindsets on addiction is giving people as much practice in thinking about those contexts. The situations that individuals are in and how we can change those as we give people and thinking about individual will and responsibility. 

There is great work, for example, going on in the field of climate communications which shows that if you appeal to a legacy value, not to your personal gains, but to the things that you will leave future generations, you can make people more positively predisposed to think  ahead and forward in time.

Denver: Let me ask you about a broad issue, and it’s one that drives me crazy… and I’m sure a lot of other people as well, and that is getting support to pass preventative social and environmental policies to make people safer, make people healthier.

We’ll spend a ton of money after the disaster occurs, but to do something upfront, how do you change people’s minds and opinions on that? 

Nat: Well, you’ve got your finger on it, which is, it is really hard to get people pumped to go out and do a lot of work and spend a lot of money so that you see nothing as a result. So that conceptually is an incredibly sticky wicket. That’s a really hard thing to frame for people, and there’s a whole bunch of psychological reasons and cultural reasons why that is. So there’s delay discounting, the fact that we always value the here and now more than the later. 

Denver: Right. 

Nat: There’s cultural reasons why that’s so difficult to get people to realize. This is something that I talk about a lot, and I think in terms of the field of communications, it’s actually quite under-researched and underfunded. There isn’t a good body of research. There is starting to be, but there is not yet a good body of research that looks at how to crack that conundrum of prevention.

There is great work, for example, going on in the field of climate communications which shows that if you appeal to a legacy value, not to your personal gains, but to the things that you will leave future generations, you can make people more positively predisposed to think  ahead and forward in time.

So there is good work going on, but inherent in your question is the idea that people across a whole slew of fields struggle and fall down frequently and dramatically when it comes to talking about prevention. 

Nat Kendall Taylor and Denver Frederick inside the studio

Denver: It’s a human condition. I mean, I do it in my own life, I absolutely know. Now, how do you go about doing this work? I mean, doing the research, getting the data on an issue, coming out the other end. I mean, what goes into the whole operation of this? 

Nat: Yeah, so this is a short interview, so I’ll give you the abridged… I’ll give you the CliffNotes version, but this is really, I mean, this is the thing that I am probably most excited about in the work that I’ve done over the last 13 years, is with my colleagues at FrameWorks. We have brought together methods from various disciplines and kind of knitted them together into a way of doing applied framing research. And so we’re interested in a series of questions, and we have methods from different disciplines that answer each of those questions. So the first question we ask in our work is: What does a field want to say? What are the core ideas that they want to be able to effectively frame and communicate?

What do you, as an addiction advocate or a criminal justice advocate, what do you want people to know? And you’d be surprised at how hard that work is for people who work on issues , the kind of importance in giving careful thought to the question of: what is it you want people to know? And then we’re really interested in- 

Denver: I mean, there’s a lot of assumptions that go into that. I think a field has assumptions, and anyone who goes into that field lives with those assumptions and doesn’t challenge them probably to the degree that they should. 

Nat: Right. Or the difficulty in kind of crystallizing and distilling what for most people who work on issues is an incredibly deep and wide body of knowledge. So that’s really hard. How do you go from everything you know about the death penalty or immigration to a finite set of things that are essential for people to know about those issues? 

Denver: So essentially the experts are not the audience.

Nat: That’s right. That’s right. So that’s a great phrase. And I think it’s kind of part of the core of our work is the degree to which we are frequently in a role where we are reminding people that you are not your audience. And then they nod knowingly, kind of like you’re just doing,  and then they leave the room, and then they go back to doing the same thing.

Denver: …all these steps… then go back to work and forget everything.

Nat: It’s the same way. 

So we’re also really interested in how people think about issues. And that’s really why, frankly, why I, as a psychological anthropologist, have a job, right? So we study deeply how people make sense of these really complicated social and scientific issues, and not being concerned about what they know about issues, but rather deeply how they think; what are the patterned assumptions?

And then I guess the cornerstone of our work is the question of not what ideas do you want to communicate, not how people think about them, but: What is the story you should be telling? And I think the unique aspect of our work is that we don’t treat that as a question that can be answered by a group of experts around a table, but rather we think about it as a research question.

So we test different ways of communicating about the issues that we’ve talked about: addiction, early childhood. And we measure how those choices, those differences, have concrete and measurable effects on the things that people care about: support for policy, attitudes, opinions, whether people are willing to engage, motivation, things of that nature.

Denver: Sometimes it’s interesting that you don’t know that much about any of these issues going in, so you approach them with humility… that you don’t have the answers. And that is probably the best frame that you can have. And I do know that, you know, I think one of the great distinctions is that when you interview these people, this is not public opinion. This is really digging in deep. I mean, these are multi-hour interviews to find out what their thinking is at its core. 

Nat: Yeah. And so I think when most people come upon our work, the model they use to understand it is public opinion work. 

Denver: Yes. 

Nat: There is great value in public opinion, but it is really important to realize that it’s different than the work that we do.

And the way that you just said, I’m not interested in what you know about a particular  issue. I am interested in how you think, right? What are the deep common patterns that you rely on frequently without knowing it at a subconscious level? 

Denver: That’s right. 

Nat: That in form, that in shape, that shape how you think about those issues. So that’s really my people; anthropologists call those cultural models. These are things like individualism, like fatalism, like otherism, that shape how we process information when we receive it. 

Denver: Yeah. I can’t remember the company… I think it’s Toyota, but one of their rules of thumb is to ask “why” five times.

So when people give you something and just ask why or why and why, you start digging in really deep, and they don’t sometimes know why. But then what they almost discover for themselves that, “Ooh, this is who I am.” 

Nat: Yeah. So you said five times. In a 2.5 hour interview where we’re asking people to talk and think and explain and narrate an issue, we ask why  more than five times. I mean, we ask why for two and a half hours basically. And so we’re getting people to tell us stories to explain how things work, to provide examples, and it’s in the provision of those examples, the telling of those stories, that you start to see these threads become apparent in how they’re thinking.

Denver: I don’t know if you have any thoughts on this, but I speak to a lot of nonprofit CEOs who desire to change and transform their culture, their workplace culture, their corporate culture. Is there a place for framing or reframing  as they endeavor to take on this very challenging task?

Nat: So we apply framing in a particular way, in a particular theory of change. But I mean, think about how we define framing. Choices and how you say what you have to say that influence how people think and act. So I think that that absolutely pertains in a more corporate culture or corporate environment where people are framing all the time.  And they may not know it, but the first step is to realize that the way you are framing affects your work culture, your corporate culture. And then you can begin to be more intentional in how you’re presenting messages. So, I think framing has applications all the way from the Thanksgiving table to the board table, to the public square. I mean, I think it is really an underutilized but incredibly powerful sensibility, a way of thinking about how people think, and a way of thinking about how we can expand and shift those ways of thinking based on what we have control over, which is what we say, right? 

Denver: So taking this down to the listener who’s always trying to persuade somebody, whether it be a colleague at work, or a friend about an election, are there any things that they should keep in mind in terms of framing as they try to sell their idea to someone else?

Nat: This is the kind of question where I feel like I’m gonna rattle off some common sense, but I think that part of the power of our work is that it is stuff that makes sense, but that people maybe don’t think about as much as they could or should. So the first thing is that the values that you use to frame your messages; the values are the explanation of why something matters, are incredibly important, right? If you can find a value that meets up and intersects with what people think is important, and you can connect that with your issue, you’re more than halfway there. So that’s the first thing that I would say is that values and finding ones  that can kind of get your issue into the set of concerns that people have is incredibly powerful.

And when I say that, we all probably can nod our heads and realize that that makes sense, but the number of times that we actually don’t do that, I think is pretty remarkable. 

Denver: Yeah. I mean, we’re never thinking about our audience. We’re thinking about the point we want to make. 

Nat: That’s right.

Denver: If you begin to start to think about the audience and what’s important to them, and then try to match up what you’re going to say with that, you’re, as you say, 50% of the way there…

Nat: Your messages go somewhere, and they can, that somewhere is… a place that’s other than your mind. I think that’s an important realization. And then there’s specific things, like so many times the people who we work with, who are incredibly research-oriented and empirical, just have this perspective that data wins the day, and that numbers are  magical nuggets of persuasion. And I think we know, and there’s a very rich line of research that shows that data alone do not win the day, right? Data cannot be your frame. Numbers are not the entirety of your strategy. And that you need to think about positioning data so that they play a specific role in a larger story. 

And then the other thing that I’ve seen across the issues that we work on, and this is for good reason, is that folks, and we do this in our personal lives — I do this all the time — is that we think that if we can show people, people who we’re talking to, how much of a crisis my issue is… how big, how bad, how dire and on fire it is, that you’ll be persuaded, and you’ll come to think about it, and you’ll be engaged, and you’ll be motivated to do what I’m asking you to do. And I think there’s great research to show that that’s really not  the case. And if all we give people is the problem… 

Denver: Yeah. Right. 

Nat: There’s no motivation to solve it. So we’ve got to help get people to see that there are solutions, and there are ways of making things better. And so part of the mission of a good communicator is not only to make people aware of the extent, the depth and severity of a problem, but allow people to see that solutions are possible and show them what some potential solutions are. 

Denver: Yeah, that’s a great point, I must say. Again, it’s human nature… People want to back winners. They don’t want to back losers. And if you have a problem, which is just so God-Awful, that what I do is never going to change it, you tend to move on and say, “Well, I want to do something where I can have an impact and actually back a winner.” 

Nat: Our psychic energy is a limited resource, and so we choose where to allocate it very carefully. And I would argue that a problem without solutions is not a good place to allocate that limited energy. So we’re looking for things that are problems, but that have solutions. And those are the things we want to be in on.

“I think the thing that I’m left with– which feels really powerful and important right now, given our preoccupation with polarization and how different we are, is how similar we are, right? The degree to which there are these common deep understandings that largely are shared across groups we are told are different.”

Denver: Let me close with this, Nat. What have you learned from all this work about how people think? What do you know about that which I don’t know, and you could share with me?

Nat: I’m glad to say that I’ve learned quite a bit that I didn’t know 13 years ago, and it’s been an incredibly fortunate position for a psychological anthropologist to be in, having studied so many issues across so much time. And I think the thing that I’m left with– which feels really powerful and important right now, given our preoccupation with polarization and how different we are, is how similar we are, right? The degree to which there are these common deep understandings that largely are shared across groups we are told are different.

And I think there is an incredible optimism and power in realizing the ways that we draw on similar ways of making sense of our world, that people in it and the actions that are necessary to improve it. I have  some energy and some optimism around the fact that we are, in terms of the work that I have done, not as different as we are led to believe.

Denver: Well, that’s a great final insight. Nat Kendall-Taylor, the CEO of the FrameWorks Institute. I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us about the information you have on your website and how organizations can get in touch with you if they’re thinking about their own communication strategy.

Nat: Great, and thank you for  having me, Denver. This was a fun interview. If people are interested in finding out more about the work that we do and who we are, all of our studies are free and publicly available. That’s both the good news and the bad news. All of our studies are free and publicly available at our website which is, and I’d encourage you to go on, check it out, and shoot us an email if you’ve got any questions.

Denver: Well, thanks, Nat. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show. 

Nat: Thank you very much. 

Denver: I’ll be back with more The Business of Giving right after this. 

Nat Kendall Taylor and Denver Frederick

The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at

Share This: