1. Charismatic choice?
2. The business of
3. Powerful words = charismatic words?
Charisma at a distance
In the Battle of Britain, Churchill's charismatic
speeches on the BBC helped galvanize the nation to resist Nazi
of Congress W. Averell Harriman Papers
Churchill's, first speech as
Prime Minister, May 13, 1940, to House of Commons). Get the audio
here (600kb MP3).
The typescript for Churchill's "finest hour" speech,
June 18, 1940. Want to hear the speech
(692kb, MP3 file)?
Typescript Photo: Library
Winston Churchill surveys the ruins of Coventry's
14th-century cathedral, after the German air raid of November 14-15,
1940, which killed 380. The attack shocked the American public,
but it would take another year -- and the Japanese
attack on Pearl Harbor, and the
German declaration of war, before the United States overtly joined
Great Britain's fight against fascism. Photo: Library
of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
In discussions of charisma, we may think about
sex appeal before we think about word choice, but Cynthia Emrich,
associate professor of management at the School of Business at
the College of William and Mary, argues that words matter. Leaders,
she says, must stand for something, and it's words that set out
those positions. "If the leader is attractive, but you don't
have any clue [about where he or she stands] you can't identify
with him. The leader loses potency."
In fact, Emrich contends that words sometimes nosed out looks, at least in the era before TV. "We tend to equate charisma with a type of sex appeal or charm, but you can find charismatic leaders who were pretty darn unattractive. [British Prime Minister Winston] Churchill was unarguably tremendously charismatic, but was not attractive physically, did not have much sex appeal."
The voice of charisma...
" I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears
and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before
us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our
policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might
and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous
tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.
That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It
is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory,
however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival."
Churchill's power, she says, rested in the realm of words. When Britain faced a Nazi invasion during the dark days of May, 1940, Churchill leveled with Britons as he took office: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat." (If you didn't listen to his chilling speech, scroll up and hear it now...)
The speech, and Churchill's haunting delivery, is widely credited with mobilizing Great Britain to survive Nazi assault.
Emrich grew interested in the language of charisma after reading a theory that memorable art creates images in the viewer's mind. A study of Shakespeare's sonnets, for example, found that the most popular sonnets had the most image-based words such as heart," hand" or "desert." (In contrast, "idea-based words," such as "commitment," "know," or "reasoning," register on the intellectual plane, and must be translated into images.)
In a study of historic presidential speeches, (see "Images in Words..." in the bibliography) Emrich and colleagues examined word choice, and found that U.S. presidents now deemed charismatic by historians were heavy users of image-based words. Looked at another way, presidents who used more of the image-evoking words in pivotal speeches were also ranked as more effective.
And while nobody has yet compared John E. to Winston C., Emrich says the boy wonder from North Carolina does choose compelling words. She recalls an Edwards speech from the primaries: "I see people with lint in their hair, grease on their faces, the backbone of America, talking about the doors of their factories closing."
Although Emrich can't prove exactly why image words would be more persuasive than idea words, she suspects it's because they engage a different part of the brain: "When you use image-based words, you put in people's mind an image, it's not just something they see, but also hear and taste."
Everyday speech reflects the power of images, she adds. "You hear people say, 'It was so real I could almost taste it.'"
Image-based words also go directly to the brain, Emrich contends. "If you issue a call to action in abstract language, people first have to understand that abstraction... 'What would it be like if we did accomplish that? What would it taste like, feel like?'"
Making those translations, she adds, is "hard work, and people don't seem to want to work very hard these days. A leader who says, 'It's so close we can almost touch it' is doing the work for the followers, and is making the goal seem more real, more doable."
Being able to elicit images in the mind of a follower has other advantages, says Emrich. A message that is easy to understand reflects well on the message and the messenger.
Talk to me about charisma on the telly.