Political Parlance


April 16, 2008

The words we use speak volumes about who we are.  If you’ve ever applied for a job, you’ve felt the pressure of trying to sell yourself as the ideal candidate.  You have to choose your words carefully. 

You want to come across as intelligent, but not arrogant, analytical but creative, someone who works hard but can get down at the office party.  And while appropriate language can take us far, using the wrong words can take whatever impression we’ve created and flush it down the toilet.

Few places are more important for creating a good impression than on the campaign trail.  For months, I’ve sat and watched the candidates for leader of the Free World talking to the American public, delivering speeches, debating, giving interviews. 


The words they choose are important – they offer us glimpses into who they are.  And don’t we all just want to figure out what’s behind the rhetoric?  Research shows the personalities of candidates matter to voters come election time.

James Pennebaker, a social psychologist at the University of Texas, says there are significant and meaningful differences in the language the candidates use. 

For the past few U.S. elections, he’s used a text analysis software program he helped design called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC). 

It calculates how often people use positive emotion words (i.e. love, care, hope, optimism), negative emotions words (i.e. pain, loss, angry, fight), self-references, and big words.

I was especially intrigued by self-reference words:what the use of the pronouns I and we says about someone. 

I was always told not to start too many sentences with I in cover letters lest I come across as too self-focused and not a team player.Not necessarily, says Pennebaker:  I denotes someone who is personal, honest, even more humble than someone who says we a lot.  (Too many I’s though can convey insecurity, depression or arrogance.) 

Pennebaker says that we in political discourse generally means you and shows speakers are detaching themselves from the audience.

While writers, and not the candidates themselves, pen most of the speeches, the argument is they’re so psychologically attuned to the candidate that they write only what would naturally come out of the candidate’s mouth.

So, let’s see what we get when we apply the LIWC method to the candidates. 

According to Pennebaker, Barack Obama, through his use of language, appears cognitively complex, socially skilled, genuine and sensitive.  What is striking is that he appears more emotionally volatile than the other two candidates when it comes to winning and losing:he tends to say I win, but we lose. 


On the other hand, Hillary Clinton and John McCain seem more emotionally stable, using I and we at similar rates after big wins or losses. 

 Clinton tends to use I a lot, as well as positive emotion words, and uses fewer fightin’ words than either McCain or Obama. 

Interestingly, while McCain may come across as emotionally detached, he in fact uses positive emotion words at a higher rate than Obama or Clinton.  According to the analysis, McCain is a really optimistic guy.

Candidates’ language use can also reveal how much they’re spinning. 

Queen’s University computing science professor David Skillicorn has developed a software program that determines the amount of deception in the speeches given by the three current contenders in the U.S. election. 

He defines spin as the way that politicians slightly adjust what they say to appeal to as many voters as possible. 

Skillicorn’s indicators of spin are:  low rates of first-person singular pronouns (I, me, my) and low rates of exclusive words (or, but however).  He says people who spin tend not to create complex sentences or give many details to avoid being asked a lot of questions.

According to Skillicorn’s model, Obama is the king of spin.  McCain is the most forthright, and Clinton speaks more or less candidly, although lately, has been using more and more spin.  


Obama’s spin is determined in part by his high use of we, perhaps to distance himself from the message. 

Skillicorn notes this changed after Obama took Wisconsin and Hawaii in late February, having taken a comfortable lead over Clinton and cut into her support by women and union members. 

Obama’s use of first-person singular pronouns then increased dramatically; Skillicorn figured it was because Obama thought he had the nomination. 

Obama’s use of language in his famous speech on race arguably says more about him than his previous speeches. 

Skillicorn found Obama used spin when talking about issues around his pastor:“we need to think about that”, says Skillicorn, translates as “you need to think about that.” 

But James Pennebaker says this speech offered a glimpse of the real Obama.He says Obama was laying out an argument, a world view, almost as if there were no audience:  “It was a ‘this is who I am’ kind of speech.”

So, what does all this speech analysis say about who might win the election? 

Well, the research isn’t irrefutable, but past elections have shown that the candidate who spins the least tends to win (in the Canadian context, Skillicorn found Stephen Harper used the least amount of spin during the 2006 election). 

And whatever you say about George W. Bush, he has (or at least had) a likeability factor.  He used I at much higher rates than either John Kerry or Al Gore, who appeared detached from their audiences.  “Bush may seem like a dufus,” says Pennebaker, “but he always comes across as a human being.” 

And that human factor may be what puts you ahead, because what is a presidential campaign but a glorified job application?  So in your next application, remember:  use I avoid we, speak from the heart, and be positive. 

As it turns out, all your boss really wants is a human being.

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