President's body language loud and clear SPEAKING VOLUMES

August 10, 1994|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Staff Writer

Most Americans tune into presidential press conferences to hear what new promises, warnings, explanations and announcements may emerge from Bill Clinton. A small group of listeners, however, is as interested in how the president speaks as in what he says.

Linguistics scholars and communications professors value presidential press conferences for what they reveal about the personality of modern leaders as well as the formulas of power in the age of television.

For instance, Walter Weintraub, a clinical professor of psychiatry at University of Maryland Medical Center, finds Bill Clinton arranges his sentences in a very revealing manner. He says certain patterns in the president's speech show he is more dramatic, and perhaps more in touch with his emotions, than other presidents in recent history.

"Clinton is a mainstream speaker," says Dr. Weintraub. "He is the most theatrical of all presidents in his use of such adverbial intensifiers as 'really,' 'very,' 'so' and 'such.' He also uses more 'feeling' words -- such as 'I like,' 'I hate' -- than most other presidents."

Author of "Verbal Behavior in Everyday Life," Dr. Weintraub has studied televised presidential press conferences back to Eisenhower for insights into what leaders reveal about themselves in unrehearsed exchanges.

Along the way, he has discovered presidents sound more alike than one might suspect.

"The electorate is used to hearing the presidents speak a certain way. If a candidate were too deviant in the way he spoke, he might not be electable," Dr. Weintraub says.

Presidents -- and would-be presidents -- also use personal pronouns in telling ways. Dr. Weintraub has observed that Clinton avoids "we" in favor of "I."

"An 'I' fellow is usually his own person and not presenting himself as the leader of a crusade or a particular group. Ross Perot, for instance, clearly presented himself that way. Perot was a 'we' fellow.

"Only one president used the royal 'we' with any frequency: Lyndon Johnson. Nixon used it a trifle and the rest didn't use it at all."

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton used the pronoun "me" more than Bush, Perot or any previous president whom Dr. Weintraub had studied.

"In regular speech, children use 'me' more than adults. Women use 'me' more than men. The elderly use 'me' more than young adults.

"I take this to mean it indicates some streak of passivity [in his personality]," the psychiatrist says. "That's because 'I' initiates the action and 'me' receives the action."

And do many, perhaps any, of these impressions filter through to the general television-watching public?

Hearing with their eyes

Some scholars believe most audiences tend to hear what someone says first with their eyes.

"The research on how listeners process vocal messages shows that 55 percent of the impact is visual, 38 is vocal [meaning the tone of voice] and 7 percent is verbal," says Andrew Wolvin, chairman of the department of speech and communication at the University of Maryland, College Park and editor of a textbook on listening behavior.

"George Bush spent four years pointing his finger at the American public, and that gesture worked against him. It was the stern parent coming at you that riveted your attention as a listener. When you're being chastised visually, it's difficult to get beyond that to the verbal message."

A president's actual words gain full power when they become a transcript that is read and interpreted, processed and re-processed, according to Dr. Wolvin. At this stage, the effects of syntax become most evident, he says.

Other scholars study presidential speech for its narrative content, its repetition of themes, its ability to intimidate or to include listeners.

"Clinton has used a lot of patterns that are 'on the one hand, on the other hand.' He has acknowledged positions which are opposite to his through his language," says Niloofar Haeri, an anthropology professor at Johns Hopkins University who teaches a course on the interconnections of language, culture and society.

"What really struck me in his speeches and town meetings is that, unlike Reagan and Bush, Clinton would continuously try to present opposing views. He would acknowledge them and then give his response. I think people liked the sense he wasn't so one-sided and appeared to have listened to people. It's a speech pattern which is a lot more customary of women than men. In general, women are far better listeners."

Dr. Wolvin, who works as a speech coach in Washington, believes Clinton has improved the effectiveness of his formal delivery, perhaps a result of rehearsing.

"He's always dynamite in an informal, interactive, town-meeting type forum," he observes.

"Clinton shows a great deal of confidence in being able to wing it," Dr. Weintraub says. "He is obviously confident in his ability to pool facts quickly from previous conversations and readings."

Playing down intelligence

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