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What is story framing?

By Rhea Wessel

Story framing is one of the most important parts of good writing, but it’s one of the most overlooked. If story framing isn’t currently part of your content-creation process, don’t blame yourself. Frankly, it is also under-taught.

The way we take photos is an easy way to explain story framing.

You compose the image in your view finder, deciding whether it will be center or off center, horizontal or vertical. Snap. You take the picture and make a permanent impression. Similarly, when writing, the frame you choose will determine the composition of your story.

As a writer for companies, many of them professional services firms, I am often asked to edit articles written by subject-matter experts or teams of experts.

For many years, I’d get more or less the same story crossing my desk week after week. It would be something like this: “Digital is here to stay, and your business needs a digital transformation.”

This is an accurate assessment. Digital is here to stay, and most companies do need a digital transformation. But this isn’t the right frame anymore. That’s old, boring and will make your readers click away fast. You’ll need to find a better frame for your story.

Story framing in business writing

Story framing in business writing means finding a way to jump from your identified subject and intended message to an interesting way to bring both across in a story.

If your message is going to be “you should hire us to help you with your digital transformation,” and your subject will be something related to digital transformations, you need to find the right way into the story to make it interesting and fresh. Saying “Digital is here to stay, and your business needs a digital transformation,” won’t cut it anymore.

To frame your story, you’ll need to reduce your idea to a headline to make the story easily understandable to others and to yourself as the writer.To frame your story, you’ll need to reduce your idea to a headline to make the story easily understandable to others and to yourself as the writer.

The goal of an initial story framing session should be to generate a working headline that gives you clarity on what the story is about.

In that story-framing session, you define the frame or lens that you will use to discuss the select ideas that have made the cut this time around.

Notice the word “cut.”

Yes, this is about the refined discretion of knowing what to bring in and what to leave out. If an idea doesn’t fit into the frame you have selected, it’s gotta go.

Story framing means leaving ideas out

Not everything can fit into each piece. That’s difficult for many experts to accept, since they’ve often worked very hard at generating the ideas and concepts in the first place. Rest assured, though, leaving things out is a critical part of story framing, and doing so takes courage and practice.

Once you get the story down to a headline, it’s usually much clearer how you should execute on that story. And that clarity is often what subject-matter experts lack because they have been working with their ideas so intensely for so long.

Other uses of the term framing

In other domains, the term framing is used differently.

In journalism, “the way the story is framed” can refer to the conscious or unconscious bias the writer has in selecting the news angle. In politics, framing the conversation can mean “spinning” the conversation or choosing the best rhetorical frame for persuading others of your point of view, with or without regard to the facts, as the linguist George Lakoff explores in his books and talks.

In the study of power dynamics, frame is used in the sense of “viewpoint control.” Authors like Oren Klaff talk about ways to control the frame after inevitable frame collisions.

And so on…

Framing is super important because it’s something that machines cannot do for us. We humans have a unique ability to set the frame for ideas.

Creating a story-framing habit

Some people are able to frame stories intuitively. Others need help and practice doing so. One way to get started is to begin thinking about your subject matter in headlines.

Come across something interesting in your work? Create a headline in your mind for a story you would write about that interesting nugget. Jot it down.

Another suggestion is to start examining others’ headlines more closely – what attracted you? What turned you off or seemed useless? Did the article deliver on the headline? Was the headline a label or did it awaken anticipation in you?

When you start doing this regularly, you’ll see that it gets easier and easier to storify your ideas.

Do it often and you can become a story-finder in motion – and drastically improve your writing about your business

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