He Said, She Said: Memphis Researchers Dove Deep on Debate Speech

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Trump appealed to the heart. Clinton appealed to the head.

That’s one key takeaway from the final presidential debate, according to a group of University of Memphis (U of M) researchers who watch political speeches the way pro coaches watch game film.

Languages Across Cultures at the U of M works through the school’s Institute for Intelligent Systems to unravel political speech in Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, and English using computer language tools.

The group focuses on political crises, distinctions between credible threats and bluffs in national and international security, and contentious political behavior.

This year, the group followed the three televised debates between 2016 Presidential hopefuls, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. They found, among other things, that Clinton’s language tended to be more “information dense,” while Trump’s language tended to be more emotional.

The group published all of its findings on the Language Across Cultures blog. Leah Windsor, the principal investigator with the project, said, of course, that her group is nonpartisan and focused solely on the speech itself.

Here are some of the findings from the group’s research:

• Trump used more negative emotion.

• Clinton used more positive emotion.

• In the first debate, Clinton used more nonfluencies (words like well, um, err. mmmm, uh) than Trump did. Men usually use these “fillers” more than women do, because it is a tactic to “hold the floor” and retain their speaking turn, rather than yield to others in the conversation.

Given that Trump interrupted Clinton upwards of 50 times, she likely adopted this tactic so she could make her speaking points. Our analysis validates this assertion, because she also used more masculine language than did Trump.

• In persuading voters, Clinton goes the central route, to their heads.

• In persuading voters, Trump goes the peripheral route, to their hearts.

• In the first and second debates, Clinton used more tentative language (rather than certain) than Trump did.

Speaking in absolutes could make negotiations difficult, limiting the ability to compromise.




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