Tag Archives: Obama

The Winning Words of Candidates


November 2, 2012

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have been posturing and pontificating for what feels like forever; not even superstorm Sandy could slow them much.

Their speeches are wildly applauded (by supporters, at least), closely analyzed and assiduously fact-checked.

With good reason. Campaign speeches can play an important role in determining whom Americans will elect. But some researchers feel that may be due not as much to content or delivery as to the particular words they contain.

They can tell that by using the cool world of mathematics to cut through the blustery bombast of politics.

Chetan Narain, who has a degree in operations research and financial engineering from Princeton and now works for Google, says the actual words in a candidate’s speech are more important than you might think.

“One thing that I think words do, especially in the modern world of Twitter, Facebook and the internet in general, is that they stick with you long after the speech is over.”

Think of, ahem, Romney’s comment from a recent presidential debate of having received “binders full of women.”

Narain created a mathematical model that he says can predict who will win a presidential race, based on campaign speeches alone.

This might seem a bit crystal ball-ish. But hang on. What Narain did was analyze more than a thousand speeches from 12 presidential campaigns between 1952 to 1996, as well as 2008.

From that, he created a model that predicted whether a speech came from a winning candidate or a losing one.

Winning words

Speeches clearly can’t encapsulate all the factors that can decide an election. But they can pick up on some interesting intangibles that can help predict a victor.

Mitt Romney likes to emphasize his five-point plan for the American economy. Plan seems to be winning word. 

Narain’s model, for example, highlights three areas: a candidate’s speaking style, the most important issues of the day, and the candidate’s position on those issues.

To have a winning speech, he says, “it’s important to sound urgent, it’s important to sound positive, it’s important to sound confident that you’re going to win and it’s important to make sure that your plans are getting out there.”

There are some key words that often show up in these so-called winning speeches. One of them is very which Obama likes to wing around, as in this phrase: “Citizenship – a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy.”

It’s a word that invokes a sense of urgency, a call to action.

Other winning words are president and win. Obvious, perhaps, but saying those words seems to make them ring true.

It’s also important, it seems, for a candidate to repeat Republican and Democrat to differentiate and set the tone for a speech. And mentioning Medicare is often applauded, as are the words issue and plan. It seems voters do value ideas — or at least nod to them — after all.

Rhetorical losers

However, throwing around the word Washington does not a winning speech make; it sounds insidery.

Americans also don’t care so much for the words per cent and rate, perhaps because the message can get lost in the numbers. Who wants to do long division when you just want to be inspired?

And while words like vote and elect are winners on some occasions, that is not so much the case when used in the negative, or double-negative, as Romney did here: “To the majority of Americans who now believe the future will not be better than the past, I can guarantee you this — if Barack Obama is re-elected, you will be right.”

Narain analyzed almost 100 campaign speeches by Obama and Romney this election. In addition to piling up the winning words, Obama employed verbs 20 per cent more often than Romney, who tends to use clunkier nouns.

Verbs are winners. Social psychologist James Pennebaker has shown that verbs can indicate optimism or enthusiasm.

(He also found that using I denotes someone who is personal, honest, and more humble than someone who says we, which creates distance from the audience. And the research indicates Obama seems to be embracing his I-phrases more often this time around.)

Parties or personalities

All of this winning talk pushed Obama over the top in the first of Narain’s analyses. Sixty per cent of his speeches were classified as winning versus only half of Romney’s.

Sometimes words can fail even the best politicians.

But that was before the two parties’ conventions at the end of the summer.

Since then, Romney has gained swagger, as his rally in Ohio last week attested: “We want real change, we want big change. We’re ready. This is our time. I need your help. We’re going to win on November 6.”

More recently, Narain has found that about 80 per cent of Romney’s speeches are now deemed to be winning, versus only 40 per cent of Obama’s.

“We have gone from a commanding Obama lead to pretty much a dead heat,” says Narain. “I think it’s really interesting to see that swing, and it’s even more exciting to see that swing roughly correlates with what we’re seeing in the polls.”

Interestingly, the model shows that until the convention, Obama uttered Democrat twice as often, and Republican seven times more than Romney.

It appeared he was the one attempting to make the campaign more about differences between the parties.

For his part, Romney has emphasized personalities, by saying Obama’s name 20 per cent more often than is the reverse.

More recently, however, Romney’s name is on the president’s tongue much more often, suggesting the race has become a bit more personal for both of them.

Listen here:

A very slippery story


June 25, 2010

The usual key to staying on top in the murky world of politics is to control the narrative. And, by all linguistic accounts, Barack Obama’s control of the oil spill narrative has slipped away.

Lonely warrior. Barack Obama counting tar balls on a Louisiana beach in May 2010. (Larry Downing/Reuters) 

In his best Churchill impression, he spoke about “the battle we’re waging against an oil spill that is assaulting our shores and our citizens,” going on to vow that “we will fight this spill with everything we’ve got for as long as it takes.”

The president then talked about creating a battle plan as well as the need to develop energy independence and to “fight for the America we want for our children.”

In fact, Obama’s rhetoric around America’s biggest environmental disaster has intensified in recent weeks.

Accused of not being angry enough at the company that has still not managed to fully plug a gushing oil well, “No Drama” Obama, as he was once known, is using tougher language and framing the oil spill as an environmental 9/11.

He also uttered the now oft-quoted explanation of why he’s spending so much time talking to experts: so he can “know whose ass to kick.”

Oil-spill enabler

But in this unfolding drama, with a wavering protagonist, a motley crew of characters and a slick, unrelenting enemy, one is compelled to shout in frustration: “words, words, words!”

Therein lies the problem, says language analyst Paul Payack. Words alone mean nothing if they are not backed up by action and, as a result, Obama has lost control of what he wants to say.

“He who wins control of the narrative controls the story in terms of political capital,” says Payack. And at the moment, Obama isn’t doing so well, which could hurt his party in the November mid-term elections.

According to Payack, the most important storyline currently defining the president is “Obama as oil spill enabler.”

To arrive at that, Payack’s Global Language Monitor tracked the frequency of words and phrases on the internet — in the news media, blogosphere and social media outlets — to figure out the predominant, unfiltered story.

It tracked word combinations such as “Obama/slow response/delayed response,” “BP/slow response/delayed response,” “Obama in command/not in command,” and “BP in command/not in command.”

According to Payack’s measurement, the popular opinion is that Obama was slow to respond and is not in command, therefore “enabling” the perpetrators, BP.

What’s more, this view appears to have completely overshadowed “Obama as health-care reformer.”

Remember health-care reform? That is supposed to have been the president’s great achievement.

The passive voice

So how did Obama lose control of the story?

The prime-time speech solidified the “enabler” narrative, in part, Payack says, because the president spoke at an unexpectedly high 10th-grade reading level, with the highest level of what are called passive constructions measured in any major presidential address in this century.

The passive voice in politics, says Payack, tends to either deflect responsibility or obscure who is taking action.

But while the government has lost control of the oil spill narrative, it’s not like BP has gained it.

The company is so desperate to have some control, any control, of the storyline that it’s actually buying up language.

Well, not in so many words. But for a while there it was buying up sponsored links at the top of Google and Yahoo. So if you typed in oil spill, BP oil spill, or oil spill response into their search engines, up popped BP’s official page to tell you about “BP’s progress on the Gulf of Mexico’s response effort.”

The company said it wanted to show what it was doing to contain the oil spill. That’s clearly not working too well for them.

So if neither the government nor the company is controlling the narrative, who is?

“If you neglect to write your own narrative, somebody else will write it for you”, says Payack. And those others appear to be pundits, bloggers and journalists.

Obama’s prime-time address was billed as an “inflection point” (another oddly esoteric term for a very real disaster).

It was supposed to create a shift from the anxiety-provoking narrative of a slow response, to an uplifting narrative of hope and change and energy independence.

The American public, however, doesn’t seem to be buying it. A recent poll shows only 53 per cent of Americans believe Obama is a solid and effective leader, a seven-point drop since January.

Still, the president might yet wrestle back control in the next few months, in time for the mid-term elections. Because, sadly, this story is far from over.


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.