The Quintessential Frame Control Strategy: The Russell Brand Method
On June 17th 2013, the famous comedian and TV personality Russell Brand was invited to appear on MSNBC’s morning show ‘Morning Joe,’ hosted by Mika Brzezinski. The purpose of the invitation was to promote Brand’s upcoming comedy show ‘The Messiah Complex,’ which was due to debut in the US some months later. The setting was fairly ordinary, and everything suggested that the interview would flow in the commonly anticipated way. When you are dealing with comedians, however, you should never expect the word ‘common’ to be an accurate descriptor of the setting.
Whilst the camera was playing with different shooting angles highlighting the scenery and the members that were taking part, Mika Brzezinski tried to welcome the audience to the show and introduce Russell Brand to those who hadn’t heard of him.
“Alright, joining us now is Russell Brand. He is a really big deal. I know, because I’ve been told this. I am not very pop cultured, I am sorry. Comedian, movie star, host of the show BrandX. This summer he is embarking on his first worldwide comedy tour, ‘The Messiah Complex.’”
Just over ten seconds into the interview Brand begins to show how disinterested he was in being there. It was not an angry disinterest, more of a playful one. Brand calmly span in his chair while the three interviewers sat rigidly, as though they were marionettes, controlled by a puppeteer. By creating a stark contrast between himself and the interviewers Brand set the stage for the later parts of the interview.
Brzezinski’s introduction was interrupted by Brian Shactman, co-host and MSNBC journalist.
Shactman: “Looking at Russell dressed up so fancy, I am starting to think that maybe I could loosen up a little, show a little more chest hair.”
Brzezinski: “Well I think only Russell could do that. Russell, you look fantastic.”
Brand: “That is a very kind compliment. You also look beautiful. Brian, you are free to wear whatever you want. This is one of the freedoms that is afforded to you.”
Third co-host, Katty Kay then decided to speak up.
Kay: “Russell, I want to see your boots. These boots look fabulous.”
Brand, without wasting a second, lifted his foot up and placed it on the table, showcasing his fancy boots.
Brand: “They are some boots. I will put my feet down now because I don’t want to disrespect your program. You are a fellow English woman, so I felt obliged to show them.”
This was just the beginning. Following that comment, Brand progressed on a humorous rampage, dominating the scene without leaving even the ‘lightest’ comment unanswered. Almost halfway through the show Brian Shactman, kind of threatened by Brand’s presence, tried to challenge him, by asking him a question that aimed to reframe the conversation, shifting from a humorous to a more serious frame.
Shactman: “I’ll try and ask you a serious question now. Everyone asks: what do you like better, TV, Movies or standup comedy? Which one is more difficult for you?”
Upon hearing his question Brand smiled piously and attempted to answer.
Brand: “There are challenges in all of those different disciplines. The thing I enjoy most is standup comedy, because you are direct with your audience. You can’t be misinterpreted and people can’t get confused. You know it happens when you work in media. People like to change the information so that it suits a particular agenda. If you are in a room with people, what you are saying is clear. If you say something that people are confused about, you can explain it to them. If you say something as a joke, people can pretend that you are not saying it seriously. So I like having direct communication with people, because I believe people are very intelligent, but the information gets manipulated and tries to misguide them.”
Shactman: “You know, the funny thing about your accent, when I see you in person I understand you totally fine, but on satellite radio, in the car, I can’t understand a single joke you say.”
Brand: “You can’t understand it? Well, it is best if you focus on your driving, Brian. You are a man. You don’t want to get distracted by humor, you might even crash into a pedestrian.”
Shactman: “So it is a good thing?”
Brand: “I think it is probably for the best.”
Brzezinski: ”This is my first Brand experience. I think it is not like listening to him. It is like enjoying the experience and taking it all in.”
Brand: “You know, you are talking about me as if I am here and as if I am an extraterrestrial. You know I am from a country that is near to you.”
Kay: “You are like a shopping window dummy. We are short of admiring you as a whole thing.”
Brand: “Well, thank you for your casual objectification.”
The rest of the show goes on, and Brand doesn’t leave any room for anyone to question his frame; he keeps his control over the flow of the conversation by sexualizing his jokes and transferring any uncomfortable feeling from his to their side. In the end, he even managed to completely undermine the importance of their job as news anchors by demonstrating his own news anchor skills for a brief time.
Brand creates his own reality. By showing, nonverbally, his direct contrast to the anchors, without being overt about it, he gained the upper hand. The anchors constantly provoked him, but he played off of it masterfully. He was absolutely calm whilst artistically handling all the arguments thrown at him, and he managed to reframe the discussion to make it fit his own agenda. That is what I like to call the power of absolute frame control.
Frame Control: Framing the Frame
Framing is a technique that almost all high-performance speakers use to control the flow and outcome of a conversation in crucial-setting situations. The importance of owning the frame simply cannot be understated. It’s how the media get you to believe their angle on a particular story. It’s how politicians outperform their opponents. It’s how academics establish the bounds of acceptable debate. It’s how influential people communicate their influence to others.
In psychological terms, frame is an often subconscious, mutually acknowledged personal narrative through which people can be influenced. One’s capacity for personal decisions, choices for well-being, emotional investments, religious beliefs, and political persuasions are all influenced by the psychological framework through which we are most open to accepting something as “normal.”
The concept of frame is strongly present in every aspect of our daily lives. In some aspects we are painfully aware of it, in others we are not; nonetheless, frame is relevant at a subconscious and conscious level. What I want to discuss in this post, however, is how to become completely aware of the concept of frame in all of your interactions, and how you can use it to leverage your conversational skills. At this point, I want also to make clear that the concepts I’m going to discuss in here may contradict certain ideas expressed in other articles of our blog. The reason behind this is that the underlying framework upon which the whole frame control concept is based has very strong connections with some instinctual parts of our brain. The parts that force us to misinterpret the idea of frame as a whole and subsequently cause us to draw direct associations between frame and power.
Frame control is indeed a very powerful conversational tool, but my purpose here was never to help you use powerful concepts in the wrong way. Sometimes it might be necessary, even vital for your success, but always bear in mind that the way you use it must be in absolute congruence with your values and beliefs. I used Russell Brand as the ideal example of frame control because he had been forced into an unfair situation created by people whose job it is to be provocative. Despite his controversial and sometimes even extreme lifestyle, the views and beliefs expressed in his shows and interviews align absolutely with my own personal views and beliefs, thus he was chosen as representing an exemplary case of most of the ideas discussed on this website.
Therefore, one important fact to consider before I launch into too much detail is that frame is not a mechanism of control or power. The act of controlling the frame may be an exercise of power for some, but my clear aim here is that frame control should be perceived only as a defense mechanism. The intentions of people will vary depending on the situation or environment, so it is important to understand when and how to use frame control in order to avoid being influenced, insulted or even manipulated.
From discussions with friends and interactions with people you like to business meetings and job interviews, frame control is a tool that will unquestionably prove extremely useful in your everyday life.
Frame Control: Understanding the Frame
I want you to be a bit creative with your imagination for just a second. I want you to imagine that for each person there is an invisible energy field surrounding us. I want you to think of this imaginary field as being a protective mechanism, strongly connected to our subconscious mind. It is a defense shield designed to protect our conscious minds from the sudden intrusion of ideas and perspectives that are not our own.
This energy field is associated with and affected by emotional states. Experiences that make us feel overwhelmed will cause it to collapse. Once it collapses, our defenses drop, to be replaced by ideas, desires, beliefs, and even commands. The person who manages to achieve such a thing is capable of moving you, influencing you, and even imposing his will on you.
Whether or not there is actually an energy field that surrounds us and dictates our emotional states, I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that the mental processes that take place within our brain during a conversation are very fragile and can be easily affected by the frame within which we operate.
You can think of your frame as a window frame that you are constantly looking through. As you move the frame around, the sounds and images that you encounter are interpreted by your brain in ways consistent with your beliefs, values, and ethics. This is your ‘point of view.’
Every single person in this world has their own frame and the way one man experiences the world differs from your own, sometimes by a little, sometimes a lot. This differentiation of frames has various impacts on our interpersonal relationships and the ways we behave and communicate. Having a different frame, however, is not necessarily a bad thing. If used in a mutually beneficial, cooperative way, variable frames can have a great impact on the way the world operates and evolves; they can help us to invent new things, nurture new ideas and values and improve our quality of life.
Yet, as we interpret the world through these various frames, certain deep mental processes are taking place. When our brains function according to a specific frame, they process what our senses tell us and quickly react with a series of questions: Is it dangerous? Should I eat it? Will it make me feel good? This is your reptilian brain at work. It is the oldest layer of your brain and it is responsible for controlling the most vital parts of our body, including all of the instinctual behaviors.
The reptilian brain, despite its reliability and importance, tends to be somewhat rigid and compulsive. Consequently, although our common sense encourages us to make logical decisions, sometimes this logic is somewhat jeopardized by our primitive impulses. These are impulses imposed by the reptilian brain, which tries to act as a defense mechanism, yet in a somewhat illogical way. The reptilian brain is actually the key actor behind what we call frame control. It detects frames, protects us from threats, and uses dominance and aggression to deflect attacking ideas and information.
In every human interaction, each individual brings his own personal frame to his social encounters. When those frames come into contact and square off against each other, beliefs, values, ideas, and instincts collide. Frames, because they are deeply rooted in our survival mechanisms, seek to sustain our own dominance, thus we experience feelings of competitiveness and distress when we encounter opposing frames.
Frames typically do not merge. They rarely blend, and they don’t intermingle. They collide in a battle that has its roots deep in our subconscious, and the stronger frame absorbs the weaker. This is what happens below the surface of every business meeting you attend, every sales call you make and every person-to-person business communication you participate in.
I focus on business-related frames because in our everyday lives this is the most relevant context. Besides, the business world, being competitive by nature, is the best possible representation of frame control in practice. Of course, as I have already stated, frames are present in every human interaction. Whether you are talking to your mother, your father, your best friend, or your partner, there will always be a frame.
Nonetheless, understanding how to harness and apply the power of frame is one of the most important communication principles you will ever learn.
Frame Control: Winning the frame wars
When the famous 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, “The world is my idea” in his seminal work ‘The World as Will and as Representative’ he was likely the first to introduce the concept of frame as a part of reality. What Schopenhauer was trying to communicate was mainly that – in his words:
“No truth is more absolutely certain than that all that exists for knowledge and, therefore, this whole world, is only object in relation to subject, perception of a perceiver–in a word, idea. The world is idea.”
If only he knew that after almost two centuries his writings would have such a huge impact on the way that we communicate and shape our relationships. Frame wars have always been a part of people’s lives and although in Schopenhauer’s day the idea of a strong frame was most probably conceived of differently, the same principles were applied.
These principles are also used extensively by Russel Brand, hence I decided to use them as the main elements that comprise the “Russel Brand Method.” The method is made up of a combination of the following:
- A robust belief system
- Commanding body language
- Clarity/presence (not overwhelmed by your emotions)
- Ability to exploit other people’s words
Let’s take each of these in turn for further analysis:
1. A robust belief system
Maintaining frame is nearly impossible without a unifying worldview, a philosophy of life, or a vision. Lack of a robust belief system is usually to blame when we lose our frame and submit to others. If you have managed to create a strong life philosophy and you are practicing it on a continual basis, you will eventually convince yourself to believe your own propaganda. You will be able to support your arguments without hesitation or shame because you know that they represent you and your fundamental beliefs. Anything that goes against these is just provocative nonsense.
Although the statement above may sound somewhat pompous and extreme, it is the reality behind every single frame war. It is evident when politicians debate, when priests propagate their beliefs and when business people try to close a sale. It is what explains the power struggle behind every frame war and eventually what leads the majority of people who don’t understand frame become convinced, agree with their collocutor and even follow them.
In the case of Russell Brand, for instance, he is the representation of a robust belief system in all its glory, clearly seen when he explains the reason he prefers stand-up comedy to TV or cinema. He artfully explains what he considers to be the main differentiator, the thing that makes stand up so special compared to other forms of entertainment, and ensures that the way he explains it is deeply connected with his own beliefs and worldviews.
2. A commanding body language
This factor is somewhat understated when discussing frame and frame control. However, I will take some time to explain a few subtle but important body language principles, which are core components of a strong frame:
-Bare your chest. It is important to understand that, as frame control is strongly associated with reptilian brain impulses, strong body language indicators are extremely important. Having an open, upright chest, with uncrossed arms is a very powerful pose. Crossing your arms is a defensive posture and is unconsciously perceived as weak.
-Practice deep, commanding tonality. A strong, deep voice communicates dominant masculine polarity and assertiveness. An association between a commanding frame and strong tonality is present in many powerful communicators. Even great female speakers have realized the importance of this to their image and how it affects their value; the most common example of a female speaker who has adopted this strategy is Margaret Thatcher.
-Walk like a CEO. Taking large steady steps, looking straight ahead and having your hands out of your pockets are all things you can observe in the body language of powerful people such as CEOs. It communicates leadership and resilience, and thus is connected to a strong frame.
-When seated, lean back. In any environment, and particularly at work, when someone is having a conversation with you and you want to enforce your frame, leaning back is extremely authoritative. It sub-communicates a difficulty to win your approval, meaning people tend to try harder to impress you.
– Be aware of your gestures and practice strong body language postures. One of the main factors affecting the strength of your body language is your ability to evaluate each posture before you adopt it. Be conscious of your every gesture and what it represents, and slowly try to practice strong body language at an unconscious level.
3. Clarity/presence (not overwhelmed by your emotions)
Centuries ago, the brilliant philosopher William of Ockham stated the importance of reducing things to their simplest elements. “Entities shall not be multiplied beyond need.” “It is futile to explain with many things what can be explained by only a few things.” This simple yet profound concept has influenced many great thinkers since and has frequently revealed its importance within the context of a frame battle. Remember that the key idea is to reduce things to their simplest elements. Focus on what you can control, not on what you cannot. Focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses. Focus on the present, not on its byproducts.
Overanalyzing, overthinking, and overcomplicating will just sow doubt and hesitation in your mind, and distract you from your frame. Too much discussion and analysis paralyze action. It forces you to submit to your emotions and leads you to an overwhelmed state, affecting the clarity of your thoughts.
Again, in the case of Russell Brand, this virtue is demonstrated to an exceptional level, numerous times. Brand, aside from his robust belief system, is also a master of resilience. His clarity is rock solid, and even if it sometimes appears that he will lose it, his presence helps him to recover smoothly. He clearly demonstrates this ability when he is referred to as a ‘shop window dummy’ by Katty Kay, co-host of the morning show.
Brand’s response, “Thank you for your casual objectification,” is nothing less than masterful.
4. Ability to exploit other people’s words and weaknesses
This is actually strongly related to the previous factor because to use it effectively requires a supremely clear state of mind and presence.
If you are unaffected by the insults and provocations people throw at you when trying to impose their frame, you will gain a competitive advantage. Not only because you will be perceived as a calm resilient presence, but also because you will have time to evaluate their words and use them as weapons and counter-arguments.
Again, this is well demonstrated by Russell Brand when co-host Brian Shactman tries to pick on Brand’s accent by suggesting that he cannot understand a word he says when listening to him on the radio.
Unaffected by the comment, Brand seizes the opportunity and reverses the position of power, by mocking Shactman’s inability to multitask, and suggests that it is actually for the best that he doesn’t understand the jokes. An amazing ability indeed.
Understanding and eventually mastering frame is an ongoing process that requires exposure and social interaction. In the “30 Challenges-30 Days-Zero Excuses” project, most of the challenges suggested entail social interplay and allow you to test and improve your ability to handle frame.
 “Russell Brand Destroys MSNBC Talk Show Host – Discusses Bradley Manning And Edward Snowden.” www.youtube.com/watch?v=ynUjo99Gzbk
 Klaff, Oren. “Pitch Anything: An Innovative Method for Presenting, Persuading, and Winning the Deal.” McGraw-Hill Books. 2011.
 Tomassi, Rollo. “Frame.” The Rational Male. October 12, 2011. http://therationalmale.com/2011/10/12/frame/
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