Language in Speeches vs. Interviews, Part 4: Sarah Palin

October 2, 2008

by Molly Ireland

As we’ve done for the other presidential and vice presidential candidates, I used our text analysis program, LIWC (www.liwc.net), to analyze about 20,000 words of Sarah Palin’s language in speeches and interviews. While the other three candidates’ language changed in most categories when they left the stage, Palin remains the same more often than not. It’s tempting to call this another example of Palin’s folksy, frontierswoman honesty, but the evidence suggests that may not always be the case.

Here’s a quick summary of the major differences between Palin’s language in interviews and speeches (words in each column are those that were used significantly more in that context; asterisks denote a nonsignificant but meaningful trend):


Interviews: colder, more restrained
first person plural* (we, our)
indefinite pronouns (that, it)
verbs (ran, worked)
auxiliary verbs (be, am, is)
present tense (running, feel)
negations (not, never)
insight (realize, think)
cause* (consequence, solve)
health (doctor, ill)

Speeches: warmer, more honest

second person singular (you, y’all)
conjunctions (but, or)
friends (pal, buddy)
humans (man, girl)
motion (drive, change)
money (peso, economy)
religion (Bible, amen)
inclusive* (both, with)
exclusive* (except, versus)
feel* (rough, cold)

Exclusive words. People use exclusive words (versus, but, either) to divide the world into clear and distinct categories: right vs. wrong, us but not them, a burger without mustard, and so on. In speeches, Palin uses exclusive words at an extremely low rate, 2.1% — much lower than the average for spoken conversation, 3.3%.

But how exclusive is she when she’s being herself? The other three candidates this year all spoke more like normal people in interviews than in speeches. If Palin’s language follows the same pattern, she will use more exclusive words in interviews. Palin’s political positions (she’s for banning gay marriage and excluding polar bears from the endangered species list) give us even more reason to expect high – or at least normal – levels of exclusiveness in interviews.

That reasonable prediction, it turns out, is wrong. Palin — unlike Obama, Biden, and her running mate — uses slightly fewer exclusive words in interviews than in speeches. The other presidential and vice presidential candidates all use significantly more exclusive words in interviews than in speeches. Most people, in fact, use exclusive words more often in conversation than in formal contexts, like speeches. In general, Palin uses fewer exclusive words than Obama, Biden, and McCain in interviews (2.1% vs. 2.8%). She also uses exclusive words at about half the normal rate (Palin uses 1.9%; 3.3% is average).

What does this mean? It could simply mean that Sarah Palin doesn’t think about the world in terms of divisions and distinct categories. Exclusive words don’t only indicate exclusiveness, however. They also indicate cognitive complexity, and help us estimate the truthfulness of a statement or story. It’s easier to keep your story straight if it’s simple, so people tend to use fewer exclusive words and speak in simple sentences when they lie.

So which is she, deceptive or just not very exclusive? Looking at her debates and interviews, her lack of complexity seems more evasive than non-exclusive. For example, in the following excerpt from an interview with Katie Couric on September 29th, Palin responds to Couric’s uncontroversial question about where she gets her news:

PALIN: I’ve read most of them, again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media
COURIC: What, specifically?
PALIN: Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me all these years.
COURIC: Can you name a few?
PALIN: I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news. Alaska isn’t a foreign country, where it’s kind of suggested, “Wow, how could you keep in touch with what the rest of Washington, D.C. may be thinking when you live up there in Alaska?” Believe me, Alaska is like a microcosm of America.

In this excerpt and on average across all of her interviews, Palin’s language fits the basic deceptive profile. She doesn’t use a single exclusive word in the response above, and she uses “I” fairly rarely (4%; 6.3% is average), both indicators of dishonesty.

Logic backs up the linguistic evidence. The only reasonable explanation for her response is that Palin did not, for whatever reason, want to reveal her specific news sources. It is almost inconceivable that a vice presidential candidate – with a BA in Journalism, no less – could not recall a single specific news source. Palin’s response clearly show some degree of dishonesty. While evasive non-responses aren’t the same as outright lies, they do fall under the broad umbrella of deception.

First person singular and tentativeness: “I’ll get back to you.” For Palin, the similarities between speeches and interviews are as revealing as the differences. Interviews are usually a chance for politicians to step down from their pedestals and reveal to their constituency that they’re just like them. Obama, McCain, and Biden all take advantage of this opportunity by using first person singular pronouns (I-words like I, me, my, and mine) and tentative words (maybe, guess, careful) more often in interviews than in speeches.

Contrary to what you might expect for a relatively green politician in a series of difficult interviews, Palin used “I” and tentative words rarely in both interviews and speeches. In other words, Palin has been as unblinkingly confident in face-to-face conversations as she has been in speeches written by people who are paid to make Palin appear vice presidential. Using “I” an average amount communicates honesty and makes candidates seem more approachable; higher than average I-word use is associated with negative emotions, and extremely high “I” use is a sign of depression and neuroticism. Palin resists the pressure to become self-focused or tentative even during embarrassing exchanges like the following (first person singular pronouns in bold; there are no tentative words):

GIBSON: But it’s now pretty clearly documented. You supported that bridge before you opposed it. You were wearing a t-shirt in the 2006 campaign, showed your support for the bridge to nowhere.
PALIN: I was wearing a t-shirt with the zip code of the community that was asking for that bridge. Not all the people in that community even were asking for a $400 million or $300 million bridge.

Her low use of I-words is especially striking given that she’s a relatively young woman. Women and younger people tend to use “I” significantly more than men, yet Palin uses fewer I-words in interviews than either Obama or McCain (3.5% vs. 4.5% for Obama and 5.1% for McCain). Unusually low I-word use is usually interpreted as a sign of high status, deception, or both. Very high status people rarely refer to themselves because they’re primarily focused on managing subordinates. Deceptive people avoid using “I” in an attempt to psychologically distance themselves from their lie.

Whether Palin is more deceptive than other candidates this year is anyone’s educated guess. What is clearer is that failing to use “I” more often, especially in interviews, is a missed opportunity. More importantly, it’s an opportunity that Obama and Biden both seized. Using less “I” in interviews has probably isolated her further from supporters who have been disappointed by Palin’s recent interview fumbles. Palin electrified audiences at the Republican National Convention, and her audience identified with her at least in part because she used “I” slightly more often and “we” less often in her speech. In other words, she was more conversational, average, and approachable when she was reading a teleprompter. If she can somehow communicate in interviews the way she has in speeches, she may regain some of her lost ground.

First person plural: “We want to see that drilling.” Strikingly, Palin – unlike Obama, Biden, and McCain – used first person plural (we, our) significantly more in interviews than in speeches. Using “we” more often than “I” tends to put a chilly distance between a speaker and their audience. In speeches the royal “we” is sometimes warranted, but choosing “we” over “I” in less formal interview situations tends to alienate audiences. In her interview with CNBC’s Marie Bartiromo, Palin used we-words a whopping five times as often as she used I-words. In this excerpt from Bartiromo’s August 29th interview with Palin, “we,” the Alaskan people, approve of drilling on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) (first person plural in bold):

No one but Alaskans will care more to make sure that we are preserving that pristine environment that is ANWR … And with Alaskans’ love and care for our environment and our lands and our wildlife, Alaskans are saying, “Yes, because we believe that it can be done safely, prudently, and it had better be done ethically also. Yes, we want to see that drilling.”

Rather than recalling specific people she has personally spoken with, she speaks for the citizens of Alaska in nonspecific blanket statements. Rather than citing evidence, she makes the simple argument that Alaskans wouldn’t support drilling in ANWR if it were unethical. The case is hardly closed, and it’s partly due to her ineffective use of pronouns.

Although Palin’s language changes very little when she transitions from speeches to interviews, she is making some progress. Palin used “we” much more often than “I” (5% vs. 2.8%) in the first of her three interviews with ABC’s Charlie Gibson. Palin was widely criticized for her rambling, scripted responses and inability to answer questions about the Bush Doctrine in the first Gibson interview. In the second and third installments she appeared more comfortable and less speechy. As she seemed to relax into her role she adopted a warmer and more personal speaking style, using “I” about as often as “we.” In her first interview with Gibson the royal “we” made up 5% of Palin’s words. Luckily for the McCain camp, her “we” use dropped to a more human 2.3% in the third Gibson interview and was 2.2% on average in the recent series of Couric interviews. Even with this improvement, in interviews she still uses “we” more than twice as often as average people (2.9%; 1.1% is average).

Summary. Looking at the candidates’ first person pronoun use we can see that Palin, unlike each of the other candidates we’ve analyzed, is more formal in face-to-face interviews than she is on stage. This pronoun pattern – using “we” more in conversation than in formal settings – is the opposite of what we find in the general population. In interviews, Palin uses “I” half as often as an average person and “we” nearly three times more than average. In speeches, on the other hand, her “I” use is fairly effective, and is similar to that of Obama, Biden, and McCain. Overall she uses very few exclusive words, which indicates less cognitive complexity, less exclusiveness, and, possibly, deception. Using less “I” and fewer exclusive words is a hallmark of deceptive language or spin. She might find more empathy than pity in her audience if, when cornered, she admitted her shortcomings rather than unsuccessfully evading the truth.

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3 Responses to “Language in Speeches vs. Interviews, Part 4: Sarah Palin”

  1. AJ Says:

    You might want to reconsider the inclusion of the “spin” link. The linked page is long out of date.

  2. wordwatchers Says:

    I’ve just updated the Spin link. Thanks for catching this.


  3. […] fact, according to WordWatchers, “Palin’s language fits the basic deceptive profile. She doesn’t use a single exclusive word […]


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