Language in Speeches vs. Interviews, Part 2: Barack Obama

September 26, 2008

by Molly Ireland

Obama and Biden transition from speeches to interviews in very similar ways: in speeches, both use the chilly, distant “we” more often and “I” less, and both are unusually focused on the future, talking about the past and present in speeches much less than other people do on average. Both candidates’ language is much more normal and approachable in interviews. Theoretically, talking less like average people distances candidates from their constituents and makes voters less likely to empathize, be inspired, and vote accordingly.

Here is a breakdown of how Obama’s language differs in speeches and interviews (word categories in each column are words that were used significantly more in that context):

Interviews: approachable
I (I, me, my)
verbs (ran, working)
auxiliary verbs (be, am, is)
past tense (saw, ran)
present tense (working, seeing)
negations (no, never, not)
insight (realize, solve)
discrepancy (would, could)
tentative (might, probably)
exclusive (except, without)
hear (heard, seeing)
feel (pressure, touch)
see (look, saw)
religion (god, Bible, pray)

Speeches: inspiring, but distant
we (our, us, we)
conjunctions (but, because)
positive emotion (smile, laugh)
anger (fight, abuse)
sadness (grieve, tragedy)
inhibition (ban, stop)
inclusive (both, and)
body and health (heart, doctor)
time (old, now, future)
work (office, overtime)
achieve (conquer, defeat)
leisure (party, play)
death (fatality, casualty)
family (wife, son)

Sensory words but, lately, self-focused. Like Biden, Obama uses more seeing and hearing words in interviews than in speeches. As with Biden, this tends to humanize his interviews, and it helps embody Obama – rather than disembody him, as his somewhat colder speeches tend to do. George Lakoff has recently commented on Obama’s physical presence as a main selling point during this election. He is graceful, relatively young, and in robust health – all things that are especially salient given the concern surrounding McCain, the oldest non-incumbent presidential candidate in history. In comparison, Obama looks like an athlete. Whenever he uses sensory words this tends to emphasize the fact that he’s a real, physical person. This is a good thing, especially given that Democratic candidates have had trouble acting like human beings in the last two elections.

As a qualitative side-note, lately the way Obama uses sensory words is very different from Joe Biden’s usage. While Biden tends to talk about what he’s heard or seen, Obama in recent interviews talks more about people looking at his record and what people will see when he’s president. He’s also been using “look” to direct his interviewer’s attention several times per interview. You can see both of these changes in this May 12, 2008 interview with Jeffry Goldberg of The Atlantic:

The point is, if you look at my writings and my history, my commitment to Israel and the Jewish people is more than skin-deep and it’s more than political expediency. …You will not see, under my presidency, any slackening in commitment to Israel’s security.

And later in the same interview, when asked about Hamas:

Look, we don’t do nuance well in politics and especially don’t do it well on Middle East policy.

Talking about others seeing him and telling interviewers to “look” can come across as laid-back and conversational, but Obama’s running mate’s use of sensory words was probably more effective in terms of triggering listeners’ empathy or emphasizing his physical, human presence. He also uses sensory words in metaphors less than Biden, which may contribute to his reputation among some as cold or elitist.

On the other hand, in older interviews he’s more likely to talk about what he sees, what others see, and what we’ll see in the future. This shift could be the effect of the enormous public scrutiny he has been under since the tide started to turn mid-Democratic primary. If everybody is looking at you, it’s hard not to be a little obsessed with what they do and don’t see. Biden, on the other hand, has the dubious luxury of minimal media attention, especially since Palin has emerged onto the scene, which could explain his more congenial sensory word use.

God and emotion, past and present. Unlike Biden, Obama mentions religion more than twice as often in interviews than in speeches, which is more than three times as much as average people (.76% in interviews, .32% in speeches; about .20% is average). This is probably partly due to the fact that two of the ten interviews focused heavily on religious issues. It’s also probably caused by Obama’s attempts to correct specious Republican claims that he and his family have ties to Muslim fundamentalists.

Obama, like Biden, uses past and present tense at normal rates in interviews, whereas he uses less of both in speeches. The present tense differences are especially striking, 10.9% in interviews vs. 7.7% in speeches (14% is the average for conversations). Assuming, as I’ve been doing, that people like politicians who sound like them, this is good news for his interview performance. In speeches, however, his tendency to focus on the future is probably less appropriate now, in the grittier battleground of the next few weeks, than it was when he was trying to inspire disillusioned Democrats before and during the primaries.

Obama and Biden both use negative emotions more in speeches than in interviews, although Biden talks about anxiety more in speeches, while Obama uses more angry words. Both use more words related to sadness in speeches. Like with Biden, this is probably a good sign. A speaker should, sometimes, pump his fists and emotionally electrify his audience. In a debate with a foreign leader or in an interview, reining in your emotions is probably a wiser choice.

Pronouns: “I” vs. “we.” In transitioning from speech to interview mode, Obama behaves much like his older running mate. In interviews, he uses much more “I” (4.5% vs. 2% in speeches) and significantly less “we” (2.5% vs. 3.5% in speeches). This shift reflects what people who have watched Obama in speeches and interviews already know: On stage he’s majestic and inspiring, but not exactly approachable. McCain’s Paris Hilton ad seemed like dirty, irrelevant pool to most people, but it had a kernel of truth. Obama is pretty famous. And, like a lot of famous people, he sometimes seems more like an archetype rather than a flesh and blood leader.

Obama is a great orator, but to borrow a litmus test used by almost every Bush supporter in the fall of 2000 and 2004, it’s unclear whether you’d want to have a beer with him. It’s now clear that drawling drinking buddies aren’t always ideal leaders. But, as Drew Westen points out in The Political Brain, the idea that you should vote for somebody based on gut-level identification with them isn’t as absurd as it might seem at first to many liberals. Westen urges Democrats to stop talking about the irrationality of emotional voting and start using emotions to their advantage. From Obama’s Berlin speech, here is an example of a “we”-strewn excerpt that, although eloquent, isn’t as emotionally resonant as it could be (first person plural in bold):

This is the moment when we must come together to save this planet. Let us resolve that we will not leave our children a world where the oceans rise and famine spreads and terrible storms devastate our lands. …This is the moment to give our children back their future. This is the moment to stand as one.

Averting disaster and banding together for the sake of the future are good things that Republicans and Democrats are equally inspired by. But the hopeful future Obama speaks so eloquently about seems less attainable when Obama talks about what “we” will do in the future rather than how he personally plans to save us and our children right now. We the American people are largely unconvinced that we personally can save the world, and when Obama uses almost exclusively future tense verbs and first person plural, the odds of anybody – him or us – saving it seems even less likely.

Of course, in terms of oratory power Obama does fare far better in speeches than Biden. This is probably due at least in part to the fact that in speeches Obama tends to use about twice as many (2% vs. 1.1%) personalizing, humanizing I-words as Biden. Obama still uses less “I” than both McCain (who uses 2.5% in speeches) and Palin (4% in both speeches and interviews), which could be a key difference in the upcoming weeks.

Biden and Obama’s chances, based on their language. Right now the Democratic candidates look good in interviews, but are less personable on the stage. Most of their potential voters are people of low or moderate status who use “I” about 6% of the time and “we” rarely, and who talk about the past and present much more than the future. If Democrats want working and middle class Americans’ vote, they might try talking like them. This isn’t about linguistic pandering. There is no question that when they go off script Obama and Biden are facile communicators who talk like normal Americans. They’re more cognitively complex and insightful than average, but they’re still everymen. Their interviews – with less “we,” more “I” and “she/he,” and more past and present tense verbs – are linguistic proof of that. The only question is whether or not they will be able to break from their party’s weirdly counterfactual “voters love the royal ‘we’” dictum and learn to act like human beings on stage. It would be tragic for their party if, like Al Gore, they learned to relax and become likeable a few months too late.


2 Responses to “Language in Speeches vs. Interviews, Part 2: Barack Obama”

  1. john steward Says:

    The republicans have taken the american economy to brink of bankruptsy with Bush at the helm. Bush can be safely called “son of Satan” with the intent of destroying America and rest of the world. His policies to whole bunch of countries is skewed and ridiculous.

    McCain is old and fragile. His health is failing and feels very irritable. He does not have any new ideas to lead the country. His polices are mostly assuming that America is still in 1950. He does not want to talk to Iran, China, Russia or anybody else with various reasons. The only diplomacy he knows is to take his army into that country and start a war with it.

    God forbid, but if McCain were to pass away, the president of USA would be Sarah Palin, who has not experience what so ever in any area, except to appear pretty on TV.

    America is destined to Doom! God bless America!

  2. Konika Says:

    Hi there,

    I am doing a degree in English Language and Linguistics, focusing my assignment on Obama’s language consistency and found this highly useful and very interesting!

    Kind Regards,


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