Scenario 1:

See yourself entering a gallery, walking down a long empty hallway, surrounded by white walls, white floors, white ceilings, rooms illuminated by bright but diffused lighting, whiteness radiating throughout. You see ahead of you a wall that features one painting, hung two-thirds of the way up the wall, in a plain white frame, highlighted by a backlight, which seems to produce a halo around the whole representation. On the painting is a small, barefooted child—a little Asian girl, loosely holding a toy animal by its ear; from the child’s eyes falls one tear.

Scenario 2:

Next, see yourself entering another gallery, the walls are steel gray, the floor, cement. The walls above hold industrial lighting suspended from exposed steel crossbeams. You begin to encounter various bits of rubble—some broken concrete, bits of trash, ash, rebar—and pits dug unevenly in the floor; everything seems broken, disrupted. You enter a room with large black and white images of destroyed buildings one-after-another, on easels, hung randomly at angles, hung on the walls, hung on the ceilings. You smell an ashy heat. You hear the blare of sirens. Then, after seeing a large map of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japanese, you see, displayed on an easel, the same painting of the Asian child.


What did the painting mean? What did it signify? Did its meaning change from Scenario 1 to Scenario 2? But it was the same picture in the same frame! How could its meaning change? In each of these scenarios, the difference between the interpretations of the painting’s meaning or significance is in its “Framing”—the framing, not the frame.


From this example, you can see how the sequence and experience of events and the proximity to accompanying surroundings color the interpretation of meaning, because the set-up for the encounter changed and so has the resulting impact on its significance.

Framing can have a powerful, although not necessarily recognized, influence on the way that we interpret meaning as we navigate our daily lives. This rhetorical principle is around us every day and yet, the effect that framing has upon our interpretation of meaning is rarely noticed.

Framing, in a rhetorical sense, is the physical (or other) properties that surround an entity or artifact, which change or influence the meaning or signification of the entities in locational or other correspondence with each other. In other words, the things next to each other affect what the things seem to mean to the audience.


“Framing is” according to Jim A. Kuypers in Rhetorical Criticism: Perspectives in Action (182) “the process whereby communicators act—consciously or not—to construct a particular point of view that encourages the facts of a given situation to be viewed in a particular manner, with some facts made more or less noticeable (even ignored) than others. When highlighting some aspect of reality over other aspects, frames act to define problems, diagnose causes, make moral judgements, and suggest remedies. They are located in the communicator, the text, the receiver, and the culture at large.” The frame sets up influences through which meaning is affected through the transference of “interpretive cues” from one element to another in its proximity.


Transference of feeling through circumstance or environment happens all the time, both intentionally and unintentionally. Who has not walked outside the door of work and let the type of day—sunny, rainy, cold, hot—influence the way that you feel on your drive home? Emotions about what we see or hear, frequently influence us in subtle or obvious ways, seemingly transferred to us through the circumstances surrounding us. But what else might transfer?


Along with a transference of feeling, a corresponding transference of meaning can also occur; such transference might also be subtle or obvious. In the previous sunny day example, you generally do not also start thinking that the actual meaning or significance of the day has changed to reflect the positive feelings of happiness that the sunshine brings. You would hardly say and believe, “Oh, it is sunny! This must mean that today is my day to find a pot of gold!” and quit your job. Such a transference of meaning or significance accompanied with sincere acceptance or belief without any logical or reasonable bases for it would be called “wishful thinking” at best, or even, mental instability or illness, if the changes of significance reflected too deeply within the person’s conscious or subconscious mental makeup. We feel and react significantly, based on our emotional influences throughout the day, but really, we don’t let it transfer into what we believe and think about the universe we live in.


Actually, however, in addition to being influenced emotionally by the things we see and hear, we very often do let the subtle transference of meaning through framing influence the assignment of significance given to artifacts and happenings around us. The arrangement of entities or proximity of the frame to other artifacts and happenstances often affects the judgements we make about the things we see and hear. We need only to look at electronic media, printed materials, or blogs posted online to see how framing influences our assignment of  meaning to artifacts.


Take, for example, a newspaper article about any topic. Depending on the articles before it or after it, or the headlines, pictures, or captions accompanying it, you might believe or understand the article itself framed in a way that does not represent the context of the events, details, narratives, or opinions expressed in the article. The framing might actually lead you to understand a meaning for the article completely opposite of the one from which the author intended in writing it.


Imagine an article written to honor the career of a particular politician or public figure, but with nearby articles that discuss controversial events that took place under that person’s leadership, framing the original article in a way that undermines the ideas within. Without stating it overtly, you can introduce ideas through framing that are subliminal or subconscious, yet powerful rhetorically. The same can easily be true for articles or “content chunks” found on the Internet or items watched on the television news. In these cases, a visual proximity between entities influences the significance of what the reader finds in the article.


Additionally, when there is a particular happening, such as an election, speech, national celebration, holiday, or other such event coming up or just passed, a kind of emotional framing influences us. Advertisers or other “persuaders” use anything in the national or cultural consciousness as a frame for crafting subtle influences to their messages. For example, advertisers use public attention to a coming national event to influence our reaction to some other event, artifact, or idea.


A perfect example of this might happen if you frame the promotion of a work-out gym during the media buzz of the Olympic Games: people are already thinking about fitness and athleticism, so they will already have an internal, background noise about the value of getting in shape to bring into the idea of joining the gym. Another example might be selling boats or luxury vehicles during a bull market or when the end-of-the-month job growth stats are positive. The general consciousness of what is going on—the social or political milieu—influences people’s choices about and beliefs in the significance of any artifact of communication, because what people believe and how they act are easily influenced by what “frames” their experienced circumstances and what they see and hear and read. This is another way to perceive a framing influence.


The possibilities for seeing this kind of influence are endless, once you start looking for them. Ideas, actions, and beliefs can be influenced by placing communicative artifacts in proximity to surrounding referents or within contexts crafted from either our day-to-day lives or other sources, such as those carrying historical or political connotations. This process is a common, fairly simple, but easily overlooked, concept. But, just pick up a newspaper or watch a nightly news broadcast. Look in the grocery store magazine rack or the aisles at the store. Framing works there too. Influence carries over from one proximity to another, and we often let the meaning of one thing impact the next.


In the hand of a marketer, rhetorician, or any person wishing to use persuasion, the tool of framing is powerful.


Going back to our painting again, one can imagine the process of choosing the frame for the painting. One might look through the colors on the canvas and choose one or more that “bring out” something in the image, to color coordinate things so that it will match the surroundings in an eye-pleasing way. People often do something like this when they are trying to pick a good tie: “Wow! Sir, Try this tie! The yellow in the shirt really makes this tie pop!” So, you pick a good tie based on coordinating the color scheme. Similarly,  using a story to “pull” something out and “feature” that element through framing might be useful, but also might be manipulative and even abusive.


Can you see how that might work? For example, I may have a story about veterans’ rates of depression or suicide. I could present the story as “straight” as I could, in other words, as close to the narrative of the author’s intention or context. Or, if I want to let the story illustrate something particular, I could pull certain quotes out of the story or find an illustrating picture and caption it in such a way that would make the story serve my purpose, whatever that may be. I have then framed that story to accomplish a rhetorical (persuasive) purpose, rather than an informative one, no matter what the original intention was in the author’s mind.


To a rhetorician, it would be impossible to ignore that every act is a rhetorical one. And, it is true: every word spoken persuades someone of something—why say anything ever if you don’t want to persuade someone of something? Additionally, authorial intention is neither a static concept nor is such understanding as easily attained as might be supposed. However, most people let this entire level of communication and comprehension slip past them without notice. When they do, however, they actually are giving up a portion of their right to weigh things rationally, rather than to absorb the ideas of whomever is trying to slip something past in the stream of unseen and unexamined influence.


Kuypers, Jim A. Rhetorical Criticism: Perspectives in Action. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2009. Google Books. Web.

Munroe, Randall. “Xkcd: Board Game.” Xkcd: Board Game. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.





How often have you read or seen something and then wondered, “For whom was this written? To whom were they speaking?” All too frequently, speakers and writers speak and write to themselves or to people just like themselves, rather than to the actual audience that will hear or read their words. Case in point: Have you ever listened to a public discourse or sat in an introductory-level class, where the speaker assumes that the audience possesses a base knowledge of the topic that is inappropriate for the venue, by using insider’s vocabulary that is incomprehensible to newcomers to the topic? Most of us have experienced this. Such instances are examples of unclear communication because the words were not aimed at the actual listeners or readers, but rather, primarily, aimed at impressing the speakers’ or authors’ peers with their own intelligence. Have you ever seen a sleekly designed website or other product that you can’t actually figure out how to use? Again, such creations were not designed for the user of the product, but rather, to impress other designers. The obvious—but not always recognized—issue is that if an audience can’t understand the discourse or the user can’t use the product, then the process of composing or designing has failed its primary mission: to reach its audience.

An audience receives what it is actually presented with, not what the mind of the creator thinks it has presented; if the audience can’t understand or misunderstands the written or spoken text, then the impression left on them will be outside the intended meaning of the discourse.

Therefore, to communicate, an author or speaker must take the actual audience into consideration right from the start when composing a message. To do so, the author must understand the audience—both the primary and the secondary audience that will potentially receive that message. Such things as sentence complexity, the use of metaphor and figures of speech, first or third person, personal or impersonal tone and voice, word choice, directness and familiarity, formality, and other factors need to be consistent and intentionally used, rather than randomly applied, in order to communicate effectively. Furthermore, all of these elements need to be geared toward the actual audience that will be receiving the discourse, if misunderstanding is to be avoided and intended meaning is to be communicated.

The primary audience is the target audience, the one that writers or speakers intend to reach with their discourse; the communicative needs of that primary audience must be clearly understood by the speaker or writer before they speak or write. Identifying who that audience might be would be the first step to understanding how to reach them and this might be accomplished by things like brainstorming ideas of who you think you want to reach and bouncing those ideas off of others with similar focus to yours. Additionally useful would be some basic demographic research to further identify the general characteristics of those people whom you identify. Learning the actual needs and wants of those you identify would be the second step, something that only research—asking questions, conducting surveys—will actually find out.

Don’t assume that you know what people think, because such assumptions will undoubtedly result in a skewed idea of your audience that will more than likely represent stereotypes, rather than actual people. Targeting stereotypes for your audience is something that will be noticed by the readers and listeners and will more than likely alienate them and backfire on your intended purposes.

Another important consideration—especially in this day of digital text—is that in addition to your primary audience, you have a secondary audience. By trying to imagine how the text or discourse you are composing will be shared to others, you can attempt to take that secondary audience into account. For example, is your blog geared to teachers? If so, then your blog message might be seen by students, parents, or your principal or the school board members that have hiring and firing power over you. Thinking in advance about where your discourse might be shared is only common sense, but how often do people fail to account for it? Although impossible to take every possibility into account, by trying to imagine potential ways that your discourse might be disbursed on media other than the original platform, you can anticipate an additional audience and take that information into consideration in further selecting an appropriate style and tone for what you publish or present.

Planning with audience awareness in mind is all about how to make a connection and how you, as an author or speaker, can be understood clearly and unambiguously by the audience that is on the receiving end of your communication event.

content.php.gifPiraro, Daniel. “Bizarro Comic Strip for February 01, 2016.” Comics Kingdom. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Feb. 2016. <;.