Talk Is Cheap in Politics, But a Deep Voice Helps

Featured in The Wall Street Journal on November 3, 2007

Impressive biographies, fine policy positions. But do the candidates sound presidential?

Their vocal cords -- as much as the substance of their words -- could influence who becomes the next president, claim the people who study, measure, "focus-group" and coach the human voice.

"Voice matters -- it's what sells," says John Daly, a University of Texas communications professor who has written a book about persuasion. University of California at Los Angeles psychology professor Albert Mehrabian even claims to have quantified how important a voice is. When we are deciding whether we like the person delivering a message, tone of voice accounts for 38% of our opinion, body language for 55% and the actual words for just 7%, his studies suggest.

To gauge what the candidates' voices say about their appeal, The Wall Street Journal asked Washington voice coach Susan Miller of VoiceTrainer LLC to analyze the voices of seven Democrats and five Republicans by pitch, speed, and two measures of variability -- how loud and soft their voices are, and how high and low they go.

Ms. Miller also toted up the "ums" and "ahs" in two 20-second samples of each candidate's voice. The samples were taken from a May 7 Republican debate and a July 24 Democratic debate. The samples for former television actor and Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson were taken from the Sept. 5 speech in which he announced his candidacy.

The vocal-cord primary, like the campaign itself so far, is inconclusive. But our unscientific poll of Ms. Miller and other leading voice experts suggests:

Among the Republicans, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's and television actor Thompson's baritones win on authority, but lose on energy.

On the Democratic side, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's voices convey caring. But Mrs. Clinton can sound shrill and Mr. Obama can lack forcefulness.

The best voice "probably can't be determined," cautions Texas's Mr. Daly.

 

(Excerpt from Talk Is Cheap in Politics, But a Deep Voice Helps)