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Talking in Images Creates Presidential Charisma

Those whose speeches paint pictures are seen as great leaders

MONDAY, Jan. 28, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- A picture is worth a thousand words, and a picture painted with words may be worth bundles more in an election year.

Researchers at Purdue University have found that American presidents who used more image-based words in their speeches were seen as more charismatic and scored higher on "greatness" surveys.

Image-based words easily evoke an image, sight, sound, or smell. Concept-based words convey ideas.

Grover Cleveland, for example, used nearly 54 percent more concept-based language and 40 percent less image-based language than the ever-popular Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt's public vocabulary included ssuch words as "laughter," "crackling," "heart" and "choked," while Cleveland gravitated towards "obliged," "purchase," "labor" and "payment."

The research appears in a recent issue of Administrative Science Quarterly.

The power of image-based words extends to all disciplines.

"Whether you're an artist, writer or leader, you have to cultivate your own following," says Cynthia G. Emrich, lead author and an assistant professor at Purdue's Krannert School of Management. "There are a lot of people out there vying to lead, to have their plays read or their art appreciated, so the idea is to try to cultivate a following."

As the study shows, image-based words are more likely to do the trick.

"We create word pictures and tell stories as the way to be 'listenable' speakers, and those presidents who have texts that evoke images are going to be so much more resonant with their listening public," says Andrew Wolvin, a fellow at the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland in College Park.

The researchers conducted two studies. In the first study, they compared the number of image-based words and concept-based words in the inaugural addresses of every elected president from Washington to Reagan. They then cross-referenced these numbers to a measure of public charisma commonly accepted by academics, and they found thatimage-based rhetoric was indeed linked to perceptions of charisma.

John F. Kennedy, considered one of the most captivating presidents ever, used a high proportion of image-based words. They are italicized here in a portion of his 1961 inaugural address: "Together let us explore the stars, conquer the desert, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce."

Compare that with Jimmy Carter's 1977 inaugural address and its equally high number of concept-based words, also italicized: "Let our recent mistakes bring a resurgent commitment to the basic principles of our nation, for we know that if we despise our own government, we have no future." Few people remember Carter as a charismatic leader while he occupied the Oval Office.

The second study analyzed pivotal speeches made by presidents, from Washington through Reagan, again looking at the frequency of image-based and concept-based words. Importantly, presidents were more likely to be very involved in the writing of the speech in these cases. This time, presidents who used more image-based words ranked higher in terms of charisma and greatness, though the link to greatness was less than that to charisma.

"Certainly, the link between image-based words and charisma was present, regardless of whether you're talking about a president's inaugural address or pivotal speech," says Emrich.

However, the link between image-based rhetoric and perceived greatness was greater in the pivotal speeches. This may have more to do with the purpose of the speech, however. So-called pivotal speeches generally try to inspire the people to do something specific, whereas inaugural speeches simply aim to inspire.

Clinton and the two Bushes were excluded from the studies because they are not yet included in the measures of greatness used by the study authors.

But if you want to do your own investigation of charisma and greatness, watch President Bush's State of the Union Address tomorrow night.

What To Do

Visit Texas A&M University's Presidential Speech Archive to view Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," Theodore Roosevelt's "The Man with the Muckrake," Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Arsenal of Democracy," John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address, and other famous speeches by American presidents.

The findings on charisma and language are not confined to presidents. Martin Luther King Jr. used a high proportion of image-based words. Visit PBS's Great Public Speeches to view King's "I Have A Dream" speech.

Another researcher found that the most popular of William Shakespeare's 154 sonnets were the ones with more image-based words. Click here to read the sonnets.

SOURCES: Interviews with Cynthia G. Emrich, Ph.D., assistant professor, Krannert School of Management, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.; Andrew Wolvin, Ph.D., professor of communications, and fellow, James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership, University of Maryland, College Park; September 2001 Administrative Science Quarterly
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