Over the next few weeks, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will be making possibly the most important speeches of their lives. In an election this close, a candidate’s persuasive powers — their ability to connect with voters — becomes more important than ever.
I have long studied the secrets of the world’s greatest communicators, from Jesus to Shakespeare to Abraham Lincoln. The most memorable and effective speeches make use of:
- Short words
- Key figures of speech, especially metaphor
These are also the core elements of rhetoric — the 25-century-old art of persuasion — discovered and developed by the Greeks and Romans, then raised to high art by Elizabethans like Shakespeare and the King James Bible translators. I use the term “language intelligence” instead, since nowadays the word rhetoric conjures up an overly ornate and stylized form of speech, utterly unlike the way real people speak. In fact, modern social science reveals that these strategies are essential to making an impression and being memorable.
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So how do Obama and Romney compare in language intelligence? Let’s go point by point.
First, with our misconceived modern notions, we dismiss rhetoric as flowery language and fifty-dollar words. But the reverse is true: “The unreflecting often imagine that the effects of oratory are produced by the use of long words,” Winston Churchill explained. But in fact, “the shorter words of a language…appeal with greater force.” In Hamlet, Shakespeare averaged four letters per word, helped by lines like To be or not to be. Short words win.
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The candidates’ speeches reveal that Romney generally uses longer words than Obama. A great many of his speeches average nearly five letters per word, whereas Obama’s typical speeches average below four and a half — particularly his recent speeches. This difference in word length holds even when you examine speeches they are said to have written themselves. Score one for Obama.
Second, repetition is so important to rhetoric that there are some four dozen figures of speech describing different kinds of repetition, ranging from simple alliteration (“compassionate conservative”) to complex chiasmus (“Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country”). Basically, if you don’t repeat, you can’t compete.
Both candidates use repetition passably well. In Romney’s speech to the Detroit Economic Club that his aides say he wrote, for instance, he says of the president, “We have not seen a failure to communicate. We have seen a failure to lead.” Similarly, Obama, in a typical campaign speech from mid-July says, “We don’t need a president who is going to give himself a big tax break. We need a president who is going to cut your taxes.”
But here again, if you look at recent speeches closely, Obama is clearly more comfortable with repetition. Indeed, he often appears to go off script to repeat a line for emphasis, showing he has more language intelligence than his own speech-writers.
Lastly, the single most important figure of speech for presidents is probably metaphor. A 2005 study examined the use of metaphors in inaugural addresses of three dozen presidents who had been independently rated for charisma. The conclusion: “Charismatic presidents used nearly twice as many metaphors (adjusted for speech length) than non-charismatic presidents.” When students were asked to read a random group of addresses and highlight passages they viewed as most inspiring, “even those presidents who did not appear to be charismatic were still perceived to be more inspiring when they used metaphors.”
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You’d need Superman’s ears to hear either Obama or Romney use an inspirational metaphor, let alone repeat it. This may be the single biggest failing in Obama’s campaign. His recent slogans, “winning the future” and “forward” are blandly literal and literally bland. Romney is no better.
Obama may be credited as being a great speechmaker, but for most of his first term, he apparently left much of his speech-writing to people who aren’t very good at it. Fortunately for Obama, presidential elections are graded on a curve, and he just needs to have superior language intelligence to Romney, who could use a serious lesson in language arts.