By Vanessa Van Edwards
Science of People
The goal of our lab, the Science of People is to find patterns in human behavior. We wanted to examine presidential inaugural addresses.
What patterns can be found in the last 20 presidential Inaugural addresses? Are there differences in body language, verbal patterns and persuasiveness? The answers might surprise you. We answer the following questions:
- Which president used the most hand gestures?
- Which president smiled the most? The least?
- Which party uses more negative language?
- Which president told the most stories in his address? The least?
- Who spoke the longest? The shortest?
- Which president cited the most data? The least?
- What are the most popular tie colors?
- Which party is more individualistic (uses more I, Me, My) versus the party that is more community centric (uses more Us, We, Our)?
- Which president used the most alpha body language? The least?
- Which party uses the most emotional language?
- Who had the best weather?
- Every president except one wore black suits. Who wore grey?
This report outlines the patterns in the last 20 presidential inaugural addresses.
This analysis examines the verbal and nonverbal patterns all of the 20 presidential inaugural addresses given since Harry Truman’s in 1949.
- We compared 11 addresses given by Republican presidents and 9 addresses by Democratic presidents.
- The analysis also includes historical patterns. In the cases where a president was elected for a 2nd term and gave a 2nd inaugural address, the scores in each metric represent an average of that president’s two addresses.
We analyzed these addresses on a total of 13 different metrics divided into 3 categories:
The coders in our human behavior research lab analyzed the following categories.
- Amount of hand gestures
- Number of smiles
- Frequency of alpha body language or pride posing
We also looked at some contextual cues to see if there were any interesting patterns. We examined the following:
- Clothing colors
- Speech length
We partnered with Quantified Communications to use their communication measurement platform to analyze the transcript of each speech.
- Emotional language
- Sharing of data and numbers
- Negative and positive language
- Use of personal vs. impersonal pronouns: “I” language vs “We” language
- Trustworthy language
A Note on Quantified Communications’ Data: With the exception of the pronoun category, the research-validated algorithms used to score each metric are composed of several linguistic attributes proven to measure that particular element of communication effectiveness. QC uses natural language processing to measure each communication, then index the raw scores in each metric against millions of data points in their global communication database. The % scores in each metric reflect how that speaker performs compared to the average communicator in that database.
We like to believe we pick Presidents based on the issues, but do we really? According to the American Psychological Association[i] 27% of American voters claim they vote for presidential candidates primarily based on the nominee’s character and moral values.
We tend to guess at someone’s character, personality and moral compass by observing their body language and analyzing verbal cues[ii]. The question is: What cues are being sent during a Presidential inaugural address? And what does this say about the President and his party?
Here are our key findings in each metric with historical patterns and party differences.
#1: Hand Gestures
Hand[iii] gestures are an important mark of charisma for political candidates. We marked both amount of hand gestures as well as specific emblems. Presidents most frequently use the thumbs up gesture, the point and the open palm.
- Donald Trump used the most hand gestures—641 in just 17 minutes!
- Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter relied to heavily on their podium and used none.
- Overall Democrats are more handsy than Republicans.
Smiling can be a signal of optimism, warmth and openness. Which president smiled the most? And which is the happier partier? Based on smiles, here’s what we found:
- Barack Obama (second term) and George Bush smiled the most!
- What’s interesting is every president smiled more in their second term inaugural address than their first—maybe they get more relaxed the second time around.
- John F. Kennedy and Harry S. Truman smiled the least.
- Republicans smiled more—but not by much!
#3: Pride Posing
Researchers from the University of British Columbia[i] found that winning athletes use broad, expansive gestures. We coded presidential candidates on their alpha body language – or expansive gestures. Here’s who posed the most:
- Donald Trump: Showed pride 20 times.
- Barack Obama (Second Term) Showed pride 8 times.
- Bill Clinton (First Term) Showed pride 4 times.
Overall Republicans use slightly more pride gestures than Democrats.
Psychologists[i] have also surveyed 846 academic historians, and found that achievement-striving presidents do best in office. “Achievement-striving means people have high goals, but more importantly, they work hard to achieve them,” says the author. “They stay focused; they are kind of workaholics.”[ii] In other words, we like presidents who strive to be winners. Pride posing can be an indication of an achievement striving president.
Want even more on the science of nonverbal and how it influences our perceptions? Check out our book, Captivate!
#4: Clothing Colors
We were curious about tie color, shirt color and suit color. The shirt color data was a dud—every president in this sample wore a white shirt. But here is the breakdown of tie color:
- The most popular tie color is blue, followed closely by red and a grey/blue mix.
- BOTH Republicans and Democrats wore blue and red—looks like most candidates don’t stick to their party color.
- Every president wore a black suit except one…Dwight D. Eisenhower:
We were curious about who had the best and worst weather days. Here’s who had bad luck:
Here’s who had good luck:
#6: Speech Length
Who spoke the longest? And which party is the wordiest?
- The shortest inaugural address in the last 20 presidents was Gerald Ford at 8 minutes—surprisingly he also had the best weather! Too bad he didn’t use it.
- The longest speeches were Harry S. Truman at 22 minutes and George W. Bush (second term) at 21 minutes.
- Republicans are the verbose party—they spoke far more than Democratic presidents.
#7: Emotional Language
Emotionally charged language, imagery, and metaphors activate audiences’ emotions to help them feel personally invested in the message.
- George W. Bush used the most emotion in his inaugural addresses, while President Johnson used the least.
- Republican presidents use 9.5% more emotion than Democratic presidents during their inaugural addresses.
A great example of emotional language is by George W. Bush:
“By our efforts we have lit a fire as well; a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power. It burns those who fight its progress. And one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.”
-George W. Bush, 2nd Inaugural Address, 2005
#8: Sharing of Data and Numbers
Some presidents appeal to logic more than others. Speaking with logic is when a president uses language establishing research and proof or cites data and statistics to support their arguments.
- President Harry S. Truman used the most logic in his inaugural address, while President Barack Obama used the least.
- Republican presidents use 3.2% less logic than Democratic presidents during their inaugural addresses.
A great example of the use of logic is by Harry S. Truman:
“We are ready to undertake new projects to strengthen a free world. In the coming years, our program for peace and freedom will emphasize four major courses of action. […] On the basis of these four major courses of action we hope to help create the conditions that will lead eventually to personal freedom and happiness for all mankind.”
-Harry Truman, Inaugural Address, 1949
#9: Negative and Positive Language
The use of negative or positive language in an address can indicate a president’s perspective.
- President John F. Kennedy used the most negative language in his inaugural address; President George Bush Sr., the least.
- President Eisenhower used the most positive language in his inaugural addresses; President Johnson used the least.
- Republican presidents use 10.6% less negative language than Democratic presidents during their inaugural addresses.
- Republican presidents ALSO use 8.4% more positive language. Looks like the Democrats tend to sway more negative to neutral in their speeches.
Here is an example of negative language use:
“To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery…Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.”
-John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, 1961
Compared to a positive example:
“In the light of this equality, we know that the virtues most cherished by free people — love of truth, pride of work, devotion to country — all are treasures equally precious in the lives of the most humble and of the most exalted. The men who mine coal and fire furnaces, and balance ledgers, and turn lathes, and pick cotton, and heal the sick and plant corn — all serve as proudly and as profitably for America as the statesmen who draft treaties and the legislators who enact laws.”
-Dwight Eisenhower, 1st Inaugural Address, 1953
We also found that almost every single president used more positive language in his second term address – the same happened with increased smiling in second term speeches.
Presidents definitely feel more optimistic going into their second term—at least that is how they come across.
#10: “I” Language vs. “We” Language
Which presidents use more I, me and my. Which presidents use more we, our, us?
- President Lyndon B. Johnson used the most “I” language in his inaugural address, while President Obama used the least.
- President Jimmy Carter used the most “we” language in his inaugural address, while President Harry S. Truman used the least.
- Republican presidents use 18.0% more “I” language than Democratic presidents during their inaugural addresses.
- Republican presidents use 6.3% less “we” language than Democratic presidents during their inaugural addresses.
This again points to the idea that Republicans tend to emphasize the individual, where Democrats tend to focus on fostering more community.
And example of high personal pronoun use:
“For more than 30 years that I have served this nation I have believed that this injustice to our people, this waste of our resources, was our real enemy. For 30 years or more, with the resources I have had, I have vigilantly fought against it. I have learned and I know that it will not surrender easily.”
-Lyndon B. Johnson, Inaugural Address, 1965
And example of high 3rd person pronoun use:
“We cannot dwell upon remembered glory. We cannot afford to drift. We reject the prospect of failure or mediocrity or an inferior quality of life for any person. Our Government must at the same time be both competent and compassionate. We have already found a high degree of personal liberty, and we are now struggling to enhance equality of opportunity. Our commitment to human rights must be absolute, our laws fair, our national beauty preserved.”
-Jimmy Carter, Inaugural Address, 1977
Storytelling can be a very persuasive way of speaking—which appeals to a broader audience then just using logic or data. It is also a more emotional appeal to listeners than statistics alone. How did the presidents compare?
- President Lyndon B. Johnson used the most storytelling language in his inaugural addresses, while President Harry S. Truman used the least.
- Remember Harry S. Truman also used the most logic—data and statistics. Clearly, he did this in lieu of stories.
- Republican presidents use only 1.5% less storytelling language than Democratic presidents during their inaugural addresses.
A storytelling example:
“For every generation there is a destiny. For some, history decides. For this generation the choice must be our own. Even now, a rocket moves toward Mars. It reminds us that the world will not be the same for our children, or even for ourselves in a short span of years. The next man to stand here will look out on a scene that is different from our own.”
– Lyndon B. Johnson, Inaugural Address, 1965
#12: Trustworthy Language
Quantified Communications defines trustworthy language as “The linguistic patterns in a speech or written document that are proven to inspire audiences to trust the communicator.” They have found that the language patterns that can help speakers gain trust include insights behind stated goals, directness of language, demonstrated accountability, and a balanced emotional tone.
- President Jimmy Carter used the most trustworthy language in his inaugural addresses, while President Harry S. Truman used the least.
- Republican presidents use 3.0% less trustworthy language than Democratic presidents during their inaugural addresses.
An example of trustworthy language:
“I have no new dream to set forth today, but rather urge a fresh faith in the old dream. […] You have given me a great responsibility — to stay close to you, to be worthy of you, and to exemplify what you are. Let us create together a new national spirit of unity and trust. Your strength can compensate for my weakness, and your wisdom can help to minimize my mistakes.”
– Jimmy Carter, Inaugural Address, 1977
A speakers’ clarity is how easy it is to follow and understand their content.
- President Bush, Sr. used the clearest language in his inaugural address, while President Harry S. Truman used the least.
- Republican presidents use 9.2% clearer language than Democratic presidents during their inaugural addresses.
An example of clear language comes from President Bush Sr.
“We know what works: Freedom works. We know what’s right: Freedom is right. We know how to secure a more just and prosperous life for man on Earth: through free markets, free speech, free elections, and the exercise of free will unhampered by the state.”
-George H.W. Bush, Inaugural Address, 1989
It is clear that there are patterns between the parties—Republicans tend to use more emotional language, more stories and intense words (both positive and negative). Democrats love data and logic—they are more likely to use neutral language.
Our most nonverbally expressive presidents have also been our more recent ones–Donald Trump and Barack Obama smiled and used the most hand gestures.
Some findings surprised us, especially presidents who used more negative language and data. Many viewers believed Donald Trump’s inauguration was one of the most negative we have heard in recent years. And here is where there is a special wrinkle in the data. Use of negative language was measured by frequency not degree. Trump might have had less negative language overall, but when he was negative, he did not hold back.
Our next steps will be to look at any correlations between starting approval rating and inaugural address patterns. Let’s see what we find next!
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Vanessa Van Edwards is a behavioral investigator and published author. She figures out the science of what makes people tick at her human behavior research lab, the Science of People. As a geeky, modern-day Dale Carnegie, her innovative work has been featured on NPR, Business Week and CNN.
Quantified Communications is our analytics partner. The QC platform, built on years of scientific apommunication research, uses a combination of natural language processing, automated vocal analysis, and insights from a panel of Ph.D.-level communication experts to help the leaders across the globe measure and improve their communication. QC’s work has been featured on WSJ, Business Insider, Forbes, and the TED mainstage.
[i] Greatness in the White House: Rating the Presidents, Washington through Carter,” (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988).
[ii] Bull, Peter. Body movement and interpersonal communication. John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1983.