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Presidential charisma and greatness: Words do make the man

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Two studies led by a Purdue University researcher revealed that U.S. presidents who used more image-based words in their speeches were perceived more favorably in terms of both charisma and greatness.

Cynthia G. Emrich

"Our basic premise is that presidents who use words that evoke pictures, sounds, smells, tastes and other sensations tap more directly into people's life experiences than do presidents who use words that appeal solely to people's intellects," says Cynthia G. Emrich, an assistant professor at the Krannert School of Management.

Emrich and her colleagues examined this premise by tallying the number of image-based words such as "heart," "hand," "journey" and "dream," as well as concept-based words such as "commitment," "help," "endeavor" and "idea," in presidents' speeches. The researchers used Martindale's Regressive Imagery Dictionary to make the distinction between these two types of words.

As predicted, the more popular or charismatic presidents did indeed use more image-based words in their inaugural addresses than did their less charismatic counterparts. For example, John F. Kennedy, considered one of the most charismatic U.S. presidents, challenged, "Together let us explore the stars, conquer the desert, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce."

Jimmy Carter, considered by previous academic research to be one of the least charismatic U.S. presidents, instead entreated, "Let our recent mistakes bring a resurgent commitment to the basic principles of our nation, for we know that if we despise our government, we have no future."

Kennedy's charisma is exemplified in his liberal use of image-based words such as "explore," "stars," "desert," "disease" and "ocean depths." Carter, by contrast, used many concept-based words such as "mistakes," "commitment," "basic principles" and "know."

Charisma and greatness are not necessarily synonymous, however.

"Although there is overlap between charisma and greatness in the presidential domain, it is not 100 percent," Emrich says. "Presidents' use of image-based language in their inaugural addresses was strongly and positively linked to charisma, but not to greatness."

Emrich and her colleagues took a second look at presidential greatness in a study of presidents' "pivotal" speeches – ones that they delivered when attempting to enact important aspects of their presidential agendas. The researchers reasoned that image-based language, when used in such important "calls to action," might be linked not only to charisma, but also to presidential greatness.

For example, Theodore Roosevelt – considered one of the most charismatic and great U.S. presidents – delivered his pivotal speech, "The Man with the Muckrake," in 1906. Historians consider this speech to have saved the Republican Party, solidified Roosevelt's control over the Progressive agenda and dealt a serious blow to the "Yellow Journalism" of irresponsible and sensational personal attacks on politicians and other prominent individuals.

In one passage, Roosevelt declared, "There is nothing more distressing ... than the hard, scoffing spirit which treats the allegation of dishonesty in a public man as a cause for laughter. Such laughter is worse than the crackling of thorns under a pot, for it denotes not merely the vacant mind, but the heart in which high emotions have been choked before they could grow to fruition."

In contrast, Grover Cleveland – a president who is regarded as both less charismatic and great than Roosevelt – delivered his pivotal "Winona Address" in 1887. Unfortunately, his address alienated the Western states and prompted cries for the overthrow of the Republican Party.

Compared with Roosevelt, Cleveland engaged in nearly 54 percent more concept-based language and 40 percent less image-based language.

The following quote typifies Cleveland's more abstract language: "He receives at the desk of his employer his wages, and perhaps before he reaches his home is obliged, in a purchase for family use of an article which embraces his own labor, to return in the payment of the increase in price which the tariff permits the hard-earned compensation of many days of toil."

Roosevelt's image-based vocabulary of words such as "hard," "laughter," "crackling," "thorns under a pot," "heart," "choked" and "grow to fruition" evoke sounds and other sensations.

Cleveland's vocabulary of concept-based words such as "employer," "obliged," "purchase," "labor" and "payment" evokes ideas and abstractions.

"President Harry S. Truman once said that a leader's greatest challenge is to 'persuade people to do what they ought to do without having to be persuaded,'" Emrich says. "People are most persuaded to act when goals seem both noble and doable.

"The results from these studies suggest that leaders who are able to paint followers a verbal picture of what they hope to accomplish with their help may be best equipped to meet this challenge."

Emrich's co-researchers are Holly H. Brower of Butler University in Indianapolis, Jack M. Feldman of the Georgia Institute of Technology and Howard Garland of the University of Delaware.

Their research appeared in the September 2001 issue of the journal Administrative Science Quarterly (Vol. 46, pages 527-557).

Writer: J.M. Lillich, (765) 494-2077,

Sources: Cynthia G. Emrich, (765) 494-4511,

Holly H. Brower, (317) 940-9462;

Jack M. Feldman, (404) 894-3102;

Howard Garland (302) 831-2554;

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;


Images in Words: Presidential Rhetoric, Charisma,
and Greatness

Cynthia G. Emrich, Holly H. Brower, Jack M. Feldman
and Howard Garland

We analyzed two sets of U.S. presidents' speeches to determine whether their propensities to convey images in words linked to perceptions of their charisma and greatness. As predicted, presidents who engaged in more image-based rhetoric in their inaugural addresses were rated high in charisma (Study 1). Presidents who engaged in more image-based rhetoric in speeches that historians considered their most significant ones were rated higher in both charisma and greatness (Study 2). Together, these findings suggest that the successful articulation and enactment of a leader's vision may rest on his or her ability to paint followers a verbal picture of what can be accomplished with their help.

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