Media – The Candidates’ Fluency in the 2008 US Presidential Election

Is John McCain a better speaker than Barrack Obama?

Conventional wisdom has it that Barrack Obama is a superior orator to John McCain.  The Financial Times has claimed that ‘Barrack Obama’s greatest strength is his ability to inspire millions with his electrifying oratory.’.  For The Independent, he possesses ‘so eloquent and elegant a mastery of the word.’. The Guardian has praised his ‘eloquence’ and ‘mastery of the seemingly old-fashioned art of political speech making.’.

In marked contrast, the Guardian wrote this of his opponent after his acceptance speech: ‘John McCain sounded like the vestry board chairman speaking at the church social about the success of the raffle. Or, as a colleague just put it: he looked like the guy who’d been the office accountant for 40 years giving his retirement address. After he’d eaten a little too much Chicken Kiev.’

But does delivering great speeches translate into fluent communication? There is certainly an art to crafting the timbre and rhythm of public speeches, as viewers of the West Wing will appreciate, but communicating in unscripted conversation is a different skill. The 2008 American presidential election contrasts two poles of speaking: Barrack Obama’s soaring rhetoric against John McCain’s self-styled ‘straight talk’. Which is the most persuasive, and so most successful, will be determined in November. During the campaign, the consensus has had it that Barrack Obama is the more accomplished speaker. Is this right?

Global Lingo, the world’s leading transcription company, analysed the speech patterns of both candidates to examine their fluency. As pre-prepared speeches are not indicative of conversational fluency, the remarks both senators gave at the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency were studied. As both were asked the same questions, of which they had not had advance notice, the comparison was fairer than extrapolating from unrelated comments.

The first topic for consideration was the candidates’ speed of speech. Unsurprisingly, Barrack Obama was the more verbose, racing through 951 words in the first seven minutes of the interview. John McCain notched just 683 words in the same time, equalling an average of 98 words a minute. This suggests that Barrack Obama, at 136 words a minute on average, speaks 39% faster than John McCain.

So what about these words they managed to get out?  Well, of Barrack Obama’s 951 words, 82 were what Hilary Clinton might have called misspeaks. He said ‘er’ 41 times in seven minutes; that’s once every 10 seconds. He stammered 27 times, uttered a ‘you know’ or a ‘sort of’ 11 times, and made three false starts. The longest he went without stumbling was 40 words.

John McCain, however, used his 683 words more sparingly. He made just 11 aberrations: saying ‘er’ eight times, stammering twice, and using one ‘you know’. His longest stretch without a mistake was 130 words, a paragraph to Barrack Obama’s sentence. In this sense, at least, John McCain was the model of parsimony.

One conclusion could therefore be that John McCain is a far superior speaker to Barrack Obama, with a fluency of 98% compared with Barrack Obama’s 91%. Of course, though, this would not give the full picture.

Aside from the allegations that John McCain had taken the opportunity to listen to the questions put to Barrack Obama before answering them himself, his responses were clearly more rehearsed. He spoke clearly and to the point, whereas Barrack Obama conveyed a greater sense of thinking on the spot. This is not to say, however, that wider inferences should be drawn. In an age of total political stage management, it is highly likely that both candidates tailored their delivery to suit their message. For Barrack Obama, a folksy charm would draw the venom from accusations of elitism. John McCain, for his part, has always prided himself on directness.

It would naturally be grossly misguided to take clarity of speech for clarity of thought.  Nonetheless, the findings do challenge assumptions about what makes a good speaker. As with most things, context matters.

For a full breakdown of the speech analysis, please contact [email protected]