Thursday, January 17, 2019

Battle of the Letters

One of the best aspects of mapping conversational tones is that the process is objective. It doesn't care who is speaking or what they are saying, only how they say it.

What better way to analyze these objective dynamics than in the realm of politics?

Let's take a look at the (open) letters between Speaker Pelosi and President Trump over the past two days.

On January 16, 2019, Speaker Pelosi wrote:

The next day, January 17,2019, President Trump made this reply:

Both letters start with "Dear" and end with "Sincerely", following the courtesies of their generation. Both are on official stationery and formatted identically. The only difference is that Speaker Pelosi reiterates her name and title under her signature while President Trump assumes his signature needs no clarification.

Both letters angle at power moves that leave people divided, so let's look at these letters through the lens of the 8 Major Conversational Tones.

This is what Speaker Pelosi's letter looks like when color coded:

This is President Trump's:

"What do the colors mean?" you ask.

Well, there's a whole course I'd love to share with you on that topic, but think of it this way for now.

Red = Assert
Orange = Frame
Yellow = Inform
Purple = Sell
Blue = Share experience

If you look at the letters in this light, you can see that Speaker Pelosi sticks to 3 tones through the body of her letter.

Red, orange, and yellow. Her letter asserts, frames, and informs.

The red at the beginning of the letter is a reminder that it is her "privilege" to invite him (assertion of authority), and she ends in red by amending the offer with the stated presumption of his full attention. These are power moves.

All the yellow you see in the middle there is her informing the issue with stated rationalization anyone can address objectively.

The orange indicates coloring information in an angled light.

President Trump replies in 5 tones:

Trump frames and asserts superior authority out of the gate, painting her "trip" as an unnecessary "seven-day excursion in the light that 800,000 federal employees are not getting paid because she is away from the negotiating table.

Three major things he does differently:

  • He begins and ends coloring (orange), not asserting
  • He shares personal preference (blue)
  • He floats a solution to overcome the position he's put her in (purple)

What does it mean?

Pelosi's letter asserts authority, informs of precedence, frames for context, informs again, frames again, and ends re-asserting.

Trump's letter begins by framing, asserts a little, drops some info (that some might say undermines Pelosi's high ground), frames again, asserts high ground, inserts personal preference, asserts and frames again before floating an alternative before ending with an assertion and frame that puts the topic in dispute front and center.

Pelosi's letter is procedurally focused, with the attitude of closing a door; Trump's letter is situationally focused, ending on the note of an open door.


Obviously, reactions to both letters are highly subjective, especially among those who self-identify as partisan.

Speaker Pelosi asserts her authority, sets herself up on the high ground of precedence, and frames current context within those parameters to force a move of the State of the Union.

President Trump responds by framing her context, highlighting current information that doesn't reflect well, asserts his stance, shares a personal preference, offers her an alternative to his countermove, then asserts and reframes the real issue at hand, which is not the State of the Union, but border-wall negotiations.

The pitch (in purple) that Pelosi fly commercial if she wishes to go on her "excursion" is what will likely split any moderates paying attention. It puts Pelosi in a bit of a no-win situation.

If she doesn't go, Trump won something.

If she does go (and flies commercial), people are now asking why she is abroad when she's a month into a government shutdown here.

The optics are bad for her either way.

Who Won the Battle of the Letter?

In this instance, the variance in tones and solution-focused attitudes in the Trump letter make it the more memorable letter. And people are more persuaded by what they remember than what they don't.

Of all the precedence (yellow) Speaker Pelosi citing, how much do you remember?

Of the responses President Trump made, what do you remember?

If Trump had responded note-for-note, the ground might be even between them but, in the end, Trump's letter invites the reader's mind to imagine more.

And, if you are imagining, you are half-way to being persuaded (or outraged). After all, Pelosi's letter was procedural, professional, and backed up by precedence while Trump's was a bit more pushy with a tone closer to a rock in your shoe than one of professional respect.

But it's Pelosi's move now, and her next move matters.

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