A frame helps them listen, think, and take action

Imagine you want to spend the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee catching up on your royal reading. You meander over to your bookshelf to find Paul Burrell’s A Royal Duty, and stand there… and stand there… where could it be?

That searching feeling is what a lot of people experience in trainings or meetings when we don’t frame the conversation. They spend a lot of brain power trying to find a hook to grab on to. You’ve heard the saying, “If you tell them everything, they’ll remember nothing.” Its auditory parallel is: “If they are expected to listen to everything equally, they’ll remember nothing,”

When we frame information, we put boundaries around a topic and tell people what to focus on. We do the thinking work so they don’t have to.

Why does this matter? People will use a frame to process information regardless of our actions. If we don’t provide a frame, they will create their own. Their frame may not be the one that we want them to have. (Cue the board member who starts talking about the photocopy budget when you were hoping to have a meaty conversation about a strategic decision.) In a training room, that means that each person is thinking about the topic through their own filter, which makes your job a lot harder and may mean they don’t solve their biggest challenges. I often get asked how to manage many different levels in one workshop or webinar. Framing is one of the tools I have in my toolbox.

Here are two examples from a recent board training.


A word cloud created from crowdsourcing their biggest barriers.

The number one barrier holding board members back is time, they said. Since I always promise to leave them with practical solutions to their barriers, I spent a lot of time thinking about time. How could I frame “time” to get them unstuck? I landed on a goal of finding three ways to address time—how to be more efficient (save time), effective (deeper use of time), and expansive (expand how many hours we engage in our mission). I shared this framing at the start of session two:

Time is a barrier holding a lot of your boards back. As we go through today’s session, I want you to ask yourself three questions. What can I take from this content to make us (1) more efficient, (2) more effective, or (3) more expansive in how we add hours to our reserve of time? We are looking for solutions that achieve these three goals. I’ll ask you at the end what you come up with.

When we checked in with our framing at the end, they had discovered ways to save time, make better use of time, and engage their larger community to add time. They were on their way to addressing their biggest barrier.

Expert vs. Novice

During day two of the class, we cover what every board member needs to know about finance. This is a high level, basic information that will put to sleep experienced board members or finance experts. Yet new board members tend not know this information, and they need to. Enter framing.

The framing of finance content for experts and novices. If you are expert, listen for how to support others. If you are a novice, listen for what you need to know.

We are going to spend the next 30 minutes talking about nonprofit finance basics. We have a lot of diversity of experience in the room. I know there are veteran nonprofit leaders here—you already know what I’m about to share. And I know we have new board members here too—we are so excited that you are here with us! I want to frame what you should be listening for as we cover this information. If you are new to nonprofit finance, I want you to listen to WHAT you need to know. If you are an experienced finance person, I want you to listen for HOW you can support those who are new. Listen to both the information and how I deliver it because you might play the role of teacher within your board.

Framing prepares our audience to listen. It forces them to think as they answer those framing questions for themselves. If you have taken my Trainer Academy class, you’ve heard me talk about how framing questions at the start of a session helps learners focus their attention, sometimes more effectively than stated learning objectives. (Learn more about that here.) When people have to listen and think, they are more likely to act.

Ah, here’s A Royal Duty. Nicely framed so I can stop looking.

Please check out my new board training, now on-demand! Whole boards are taking the course as whole boards—imagine how powerful that is! It is available in English and Spanish.

Published by Nancy

I work at the intersection of learning, nonprofits, and leadership. I am a teacher, instructional designer, and nonprofit person who has worn every hat possible. I regular write, speak, and consult on learning strategy, design, and leadership.

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