Subject: Framing – Frederick the Great and the Potato
Event: Birthday of Frederick the Great, 1712
When dealing with people, let us remember we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity. –Dale Carnegie
The gravestone of Frederick the Great (1712-1786), a man who ruled the Kingdom of Prussia for 46 years in the 1700s, is covered with potatoes. It’s not at all surprising to see flowers on a grave, but potatoes? Why potatoes? And what on earth does this have to do with rhetoric, the ancient art of persuasion?
Being the forward-thinking monarch that he was, Frederick the Great hatched a plan to introduce the potato to his subjects as a hedge against potential famine. The potato would provide an alternative to bread and would make food prices less volatile. Based on this reasoning, Frederick issued a decree requiring the cultivation of potatoes. There was a problem, however. Frederick’s subjects had never eaten potatoes and were wary of this subterranean, dirty, and tasteless plant, a plant which not even dogs would eat and which was not mentioned in the Bible.
Having failed to persuade his subjects with reason and authority, Frederick went back to the drawing board. This time he employed imagination and psychology to transform the worthless, unwanted potato into a valuable and prized commodity.
Plan B required cunning and a more subtle approach. Frederick declared the potato the royal vegetable, exclusive to the table of the royal household. To consume the prized potato, an individual would either need to be royalty or be given royal permission. Next, Frederick established a royal potato patch on the palace grounds. Before posting guards, however, he instructed his potato police to be less than diligent in guarding the royal crop. In this way, curious Prussians were able to gain access to the potato garden and steal some of the tantalizing tubers. By manufactured scarcity and exclusivity, Frederick rebranded the potato. Stolen vegetables from the royal potato patch were now eagerly consumed and cultivated, and today the potato is a staple of the European diet (1).
Long before modern advances in psychology, behavioral economics, and neuroscience, Frederick — who was born on this day in 1712 — understood that persuasion requires more than just appealing to reason. Instead, persuasion requires appealing to an audience’s psychology, its emotion, and its imagination. Rhetoric is the art of using words to persuade and of recognizing and using the right tool in the right context. It’s not that reason isn’t an important part of persuasion, but relying exclusively on reason is a bit like having a tool chest full of nothing but hammers. Another 18th-century thinker who knew this was the philosopher Davie Hume (1711-1776), who said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”
Just as Frederick reframed the potato, rhetoric is the art of using words to reframe your ideas, employing the strategic use of reason, psychology, emotion, and imagination. As Frederick demonstrated, how you say something can often be just as important as what you say.
Frederick taught us that people are influenced by the way a message is framed. In other words, people draft different conclusions from the same information, depending on how the information is presented.
Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: What is psychological framing, and how can it be illustrated using a potato?
Challenge – Reframe Game: What is one thing that almost universally hated? It could be a highly disparaged menu item — like Brussel sprouts — or a more abstract concept — like homework. Write an elevator pitch of at least 100 words in which you attempt to reframe the thing, using the alchemy of language to transform your audience’s perception of the thing from disdain to appreciation. Make the audience see the glass as half full rather than half empty.
1-Sutherland, Rory. The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business and Life. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.