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Reframing Big Fish and MLK

Updated: Dec 16, 2021

What could Martin Luther King, Jr. possibly have in common with movie director Tim Burton? They both perfectly understood that their presentation objectives required them to get the audience to re-frame their thinking. King went further, with reframed thinking, there was hope for changing behavior. If the audience left the occasion with the same thinking and same emotional state they entered with, behavior would remain as it was before the presentation, nothing would change, and the presentation would accomplish little.

In his movie Big Fish, Tim Burton leads us through the amazing life of Ed Bloom so that we can see and experience how Ed became the old man we come to love in the end. All the while, we fully realize this is a far-out fantasy. Yet his story telling skills draw us in. We’re laughing all the way with the crazy caricatures created. (Danny DeVito runs a shady circus but also is an Animagus.) He even sets us up for a “surprise” ending by telling us it will be a surprise. But of course, it is not what you’re expecting.

Reframing – Changing Mindset

We have to experience the mindset change required of Ed’s son before this has meaning. The audience mindset, from seeing Ed as a self-obsessed blow-hard to something else is the reframing challenge that Burton accomplishes very well. Without brilliant reframing, the movie’s conclusion would not work: we would not choke up with emotion and would not walk away so delighted that we had this experience.

Martin Luther King had a wildly different challenge. In 1963 the world and the USA were almost indescribably different than today. It is difficult for us to recapture the mindset of many Americans of that time. We think we can relate to the ‘good,’ the people on the right side of the civil rights movement. And it is certainly easy to imagine the worst about the other side. But that is an intellectual challenge. The people of that time had the emotions that drove their behaviors, the emotions they grew up with, that were fed daily by their ways of life.

Martin Luther King took on the challenge of naming those emotions and giving people a spectacular picture of something so much better. This motivated people to make the emotional commitment to do whatever it would take to make that picture come to life.

And to make this even better, King was inspired, apparently on the spot, to change the speech from the words he had written which did not include the vivid pictures he drew with the “I have a dream” comments.

When you are an accomplished presenter, you never follow the exact words you had thought to say. You constantly assess the state of the audience and when the timing is right, seize the moment, use your intuition, and give them even more than they could have hoped for. Your skill and experience enable you to pull this off. This is reframing at its most powerful. It takes vision – courage – skill.

King’s call to action translated his dream into what people would need to do to help create that new reality. He draws wonderfully vivid pictures of the beautiful future they can make together. He gives people such a strong vision that they can hold onto it even while they go through the hard times ahead to bring it to life. He gives them the ‘what to do’ as well as the ‘what not to do.’

When you as a presenter want the audience to take a journey outside their comfort zone, you need to have the ability to assess their current frame accurately, the knowledge of how to create alternative frames, and how to help the audience reframe their mindsets.

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