Language in Speeches vs. Interviews, Part 3: John McCain

September 29, 2008

by Molly Ireland

Using LIWC, our text analysis program (www.liwc.net), I analyzed John McCain’s language in interviews and speeches. In general, McCain comes across as loveable, somewhat nostalgic, and more approachable than other politicians we’ve analyzed. Here are the main findings:

1) The past. In interviews he talks about the past more than twice as much as he does in speeches. His speech writers have McCain referring to the past at half the normal rate.

2) First person singular. He uses “I” at higher rates than either Obama or Biden in both speeches and interviews. Using “I” personalizes candidates, and makes them seem slightly lower status and more approachable. Our current president used more “I” than both Gore and Kerry when he ran.

3) Inclusiveness and positive emotions. McCain uses more inclusive and positive emotion words in interviews and speeches than either Obama or Biden. He uses much more exclusive language in interviews than speeches though, so it’s possible that the high inclusiveness and low exclusiveness of his speeches is, at least in part, political spin.

Here is a summary of the major differences between McCain in speeches and interviews (word categories in each column are words that were used significantly more in that context):


Interviews: more nostalgic, exclusive
first person singular (I, me)
second person singular (you, your)
third person singular (he, she)
indefinite pronouns (this, it)
verb (run, seeing)
auxiliary verb (am, is)
past (was, changed)
present (is, changing)
adverb (highly, often)
conjunctions (but, or)
negate (no, never)
numbers (trillion, quarter)
swear (damn, shit)
humans (people, men)
insight (realize, conclude)
tentative (maybe, assume)
exclusion (without, except)
see (look, watched)
hear (heard, loud)

Speeches: more inclusive, emotional
words with 6+ letters
first person plural (we, our)
articles (a, the)
future (will, must)
prepositions (inside, without)
family (son, wife)
friend (buddy, pal)
positive emotions (joy, love)
anxiety (worry, fear)
anger (hate, fight)
sadness (grieve, lonely)
cause (because, consequence)
inhibition (maybe, careful)
feel (touch, rough)
body (skin, heart)
health (medical, illness)
space (north, far)
work (office, overtime)
achievement (defeat, power)

Living in the past and present, focusing less on the future. McCain talks much more about the past (2.9% vs. 1.4%) and present (10.6% vs .6.6%), and much less about the future (1.3% vs. 1.8%) in interviews than he does in speeches. In interviews he also talks about the present about 3% less than other people on average. Not surprising, perhaps, for anyone who saw the presidential debates last Friday, where McCain seemed more focused on his mythic past than the uncertain future. It is, however, inconsistent with his recent speeches. While McCain’s speechwriters appear to be training McCain to talk like a man half his age, when he’s less censored he talks like what he is – a man with a past.

In interviews much more than in speeches, McCain tends to vacillate between talking exclusively about past and exclusively about the present, as though trying to rein in his nostalgia. For example, past tense verbs make up 8.8% of the total words in the excerpt below (again, 4% is normal), where McCain talks about how Palin compares to Obama and Biden. From a September 3rd interview with Charlie Gibson of ABC:

McCain: She’s had positions of responsibility and authority. In all due respect to my friend, Joe Biden, he’s never been executive of anything nor…
Gibson: Neither have you.
McCain: … has Sen. Obama. Oh, I’ve commanded the largest squadron in the U.S. Navy, with huge responsibilities, many — it’s — it was a leadership job, but it was also a huge responsibility.

Along the same lines, in interviews he refers to the future significantly less often (1.3%) than he does in speeches (1.8%). His use of the future tense is nearly normal in interviews while, as with the Democratic candidates, in speeches he talks about the future at almost twice the normal rate. All political speech writers, it seems, think that talking a lot about the future is a good idea. With older candidates, like Biden and McCain, they also seem think it’s best to ignore their candidate’s long histories. On the other hand, Obama, age 47, actually uses past tense verbs in interviews and speeches more than both McCain and Biden.

“I” and “we”: compared with Palin, a social maverick. McCain’s transition from speeches to interviews shows that he is, unsurprisingly perhaps, more comfortable and socially skilled in interviews than his running mate. Whereas Palin used the royal “we” more often in the less formal interview setting, McCain sounds more natural and approachable when he’s in interview mode: in interviews he used “I” more than twice as often as he did in speeches (5.1% vs. 2.5%), and “we” much less (2.5% vs. 3.5% in speeches). McCain also uses “I” more in both speeches and interviews than Obama and Biden. McCain’s still not exactly the senator next door. In interviews he used “I” only about twice as often as “we.” People normally use I-words six times as often as “we.”

In speeches McCain used more positive emotion words than either Biden or Obama, although all three were more emotional in speeches than in interviews. His Republican National Convention speech was a good example of his tendency to use sentimental language, focus on the past, and use “I” more than other candidates (first person singular in bold):

When I was growing up, my father was often at sea, and the job of raising my brother, sister and me would fall to my mother alone. … I wouldn’t be here tonight but for the strength of her character. … My heartfelt thanks to all of you, who helped me win this nomination, and stood by me when the odds were long. I won’t let you down.

The I-words in this excerpt trigger his audience’s empathy and, more importantly perhaps, make his story feel true. Using I-words more often is associated with truthfulness in deception research. This is pretty effective language, but McCain is even warmer in interviews than in speeches – a pattern we’ve found for every presidential and vice presidential candidate so far except Sarah Palin.

Inclusion and exclusion: ignoring divisions, possibly dishonestly. McCain and Palin’s use of inclusive words are very similar. On average, in speeches and interviews both use inclusive words more than the average person (about 6.4% for both; 3.9% is average). This could be an attempt to distance himself from perceived Washington elitism and his party’s exclusive reputation. In the following excerpt from McCain’s Republican National Convention speech, inclusive words dominate (inclusive in bold):

We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us. …We lost their trust when rather than reform government, both parties made it bigger. … Stand up for each other; for beautiful, blessed, bountiful America.

McCain is talking about moving away from the old (and current) Republican garde, but he’s doing it using very inclusive language. Avoidance of exclusive words and overuse of inclusive is typical of McCain’s speeches, and may represent conservative speech writers’ attempts to denounce huge factions of both Democratic and Republican parties without alienating either side.

Exclusive words aren’t only markers of exclusion, however. They also signify cognitive complexity, which sometimes indicates that a person is speaking more truthfully. It’s possible that talking about reforming the corrupt Republican party while simultaneously thanking them for their support isn’t exactly honest. McCain becomes more exclusive – i.e., closer to normal and presumably more natural and honest – when he goes off script (2.7% vs. 1.9% in speeches).

Summary. McCain, unlike Palin, seizes an opportunity to appeal to the common man by talking almost like a normal person when he goes off script in one-on-one interviews. He is more personable across the board than other candidates we’ve seen, using more “I” than others even in low “I” territory like speeches. He also uses verbs more like an average person in interviews, using the past tense more than twice as often as he does in his unusually future-focused speeches. McCain is much more emotional, both positively and negatively, on stage than off, and he uses more positive emotion words in speeches than either Obama or Biden. Stylistically, McCain comes across – especially in interviews, but in speeches too – as nostalgic, warm, and relatively approachable. We’ll see if that’s what voters look for in a president in just a few weeks.

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