Slow-talking the inaugural

« previous post | next post »

Before Donald Trump's speech yesterday, I wondered whether he would turn the political world upside down by delivering a high-energy improvised riff in the style of his campaign rallies. But no — his speech was scripted and read verbatim as written, although it did feature several of the signature lines from his rallies, as well as the first use of the word "carnage" in a presidential inaugural. But content aside, the performance seemed to me to feature unusually short phrases with unusually long pauses, resonating with the rather negative tone of the event as a whole. This struck me as very different from Mr. Trump's spontaneous style, and also unusual by the standard of other recent inaugurals.

To check this impression, I took the word counts for the last 15 inaugural address from the page at The American Presidency Project, and used links to youtube videos from that site (or from Youtube search where the result was lacking or blocked) to get the corresponding audio. I estimated speaking rate crudely by dividing the total duration of the speech by the number of words in it. This obviously doesn't allow for applause or other non-speaking interventions, except that I removed a "moment of silent prayer" from the audio of Reagan's 1985 speech.

The result confirmed that Donald Trump's inaugural address was slower-paced, overall, than that of any other president in the past half-century except for Jimmy Carter in 1977:

The numbers:

            Words Seconds  WPM
Trump2017    1444     980   88
Obama2013    2096    1121  112
Obama2009    2395    1119  128
Bush2005     2071    1268   98
Bush2001     1592     866  110
Clinton1997  2155    1315   98
Clinton1993  1598     840  114
Bush1989     2320    1220  114
Reagan1985   2561    1296  119
Reagan1981   2427    1191  122
Carter1977   1229     866   85
Nixon1973    1803     968  112
Nixon1969    2128    1035  123
Johnson1965  1507     671  135
Kennedy1961  1366     841   97

Overall speaking rate depends on a number of things — the distribution of word counts in spoken segments lengths, the speaking rate within the spoken segments, the number and duration of silent pauses, and so on. At some point in the future I'll look into these factors for the inaugurals in more detail.

But here's one small example. Jimmy Carter started his address this way:

For myself and for our Nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land.

Those 21 words and the audience reactions to them take 48.7 seconds — if we subtract those from Carter's totals, his overall rate changes to 88 WPM, tied with Mr. Trump.

And just for comparison, my transcription of Trump's 12/21/2015 rally in Grand Rapids MI has 10,456 words in 3738 seconds (including pauses, cheering and so forth), for an overall rate of 168 WPM.

Update — I ran a speech activity detector over the inaugurals, and unsurprisingly, what's special about Donald Trump's delivery is the relatively large number of short speech segments and short non-speech segments. Here's a comparison to Reagan1981:

To some extent, the difference in overall speaking rate (Reagan 122 wpm, Trump 88 wpm) is due to the fact that Reagan's address was 72% speech and 28% non-speech, vs. Trump's 62% speech and 38% non-speech. More silence → fewer words per unit time.

But another factor is Trump's larger number of relatively short spoken segments: his median speech segment duration was 1.51 seconds, vs. Reagan's median of 2.04. The consequence is that a larger fraction of Trump's words are subject to the normal process of pre-pausal lengthening, because the proportion of pre-pausal words is larger.

Reagan1981 has 373 speech segments for 2427 words, for an average of 6.5 words per segment — so that 15.4% of his words were pre-pausal. Trump2017 has 323 speech segments for 1444 words, for an average of 4.5 words per segment — so that 22.4% of his words were pre-pausal.


  1. Veronique Domaratsky said,

    January 21, 2017 @ 12:35 pm

    Maybe he is slower to speak when bigly grumpy.

  2. Francis DiBona said,

    January 21, 2017 @ 12:45 pm

    The graph makes it seem that the differences are huge. If you re-do the graph with zero words per minute at the bottom the differences will not seem so significant.

    [(myl) If the plot were promoting the different between (say) 130 wpm and 140 wpm, I'd agree that the Y axis needs adjustment.

    But nobody talks at 3 wpm or 10 wpm — that's not talking, it's pausing. And the 50-percent rate change between 80-odd wpm and 130-odd wpm is perceptually huge. So I'll stand by the graphical choice.

    As a point of comparison, it's like the difference between 60 mph and 90 mph. Try telling the policeman or the judge about how that difference is "not so significant"…]

  3. peterv said,

    January 21, 2017 @ 3:59 pm


    Your response to the second comment reminded of Volkswagen's famous advertising slogan: "From zero to 3 in 60 seconds."

  4. Adrian Morgan said,

    January 21, 2017 @ 4:41 pm

    @peterv My uncle once asked my aunt for something that goes from X to Y in Z seconds, so my aunt bought my uncle some bathroom scales.

  5. Ray said,

    January 21, 2017 @ 5:23 pm

    trump delivers differently when teleprompted than when ad libbing. whenever he reads, he becomes measured, toneless, almost as if he's reciting scripture (or scrutinizing a binding contract, line by line). and his inaugural speech seemed to be as much about pausing after every line as it was about switching from right to left teleprompter, so I wonder if that plays into measuring pauses. (besides all this, I thought his unmodulated, stentorian tone throughout gave it a kind of "word from the mountaintop" feel, that was perceived by some to be dark and negative and foreboding, by others as a righteous, let's-talk-turkey indictment…)

  6. AntC said,

    January 21, 2017 @ 5:43 pm

    There are significant differences between the inaugurals from the same president at their second term.

    And the outliers seem all to be single-term presidents ;-)

  7. JPL said,

    January 22, 2017 @ 5:31 am

    Ray @21Jan 5:23pm

    Yes, that's right. I can tell just by listening when he's reading and when he's speaking extemporaneously. When he's reading, the text and the ideas, as well as the tone, are from Breitbart, I would bet on it, from Stephen Miller, Bannon and those types. The language is not really his own in origin; when he's riffing from one self- referential obsession to another — crowd size, his victories, the greatest X, X is a disaster, browbeating, hitting back — he's revealing his own mind. I think the "alt-right" types like the dark, aggressive, truculent tone, but probably, as John McWhorter says in the Times today, the mild middle aged rural folks prefer the casual stand-up pattering style. (BTW, if he were smart, which fortunately he's not, because it will be more advantageous for the movement if he remains the ogre, hands on hips, gushing drivel from his lips, he would fire Bannon, Miller, Sessions and all the other Breitbart people, because he doesn't need them anymore.) As for the content of what he appears to say, we should view it as the old Kremlin watchers viewed the speech of Soviet era leaders (pretty much the same applies to what Putin appears to say). The media should not paraphrase his sayings, because doing so makes his utterance appear more sensible than it really is; they should always quote directly and then wonder what it meant, perhaps, but then forget about it.

  8. philip said,

    January 22, 2017 @ 6:28 am

    Watching live, I thought he had memorised his speech and was reciting rather than reading. But obviously I am not as aware as others are of hidden teleprompters.

    One use of language I have not seen reported anywhere: I am pretty sure Trump said: 'factories shuttered' and was using it not as a past participle but as an intransitive verb on the pattern of 'children wailed'. Did anyone else notice this? Or think that it has to be 'factories were shuttered'?

  9. Rachel Sommer said,

    January 22, 2017 @ 7:37 am

    It was also written by Steve Bannon of Breitbart, who has hardly been shy about such themes. I found it frightening.

  10. Crprod said,

    January 22, 2017 @ 9:28 am

    Has anyone run a word analysis on Trump's speech? It's showing up on Facebook as hardly using the first person singular at all in comparison to Obama's reputed obsession with that.

    [(myl) I thought we were done with that nonsense :-(…

    FWIW (basically nothing) here's an graph of first-person-singular pronoun usage in State of the Union messages, from "The Evolution of SOTU Pronouns", 1/28/2014:

    As I observed, Obama's SOTU speeches are more or less in the middle of the pack in this particular comparison. In comparison of other types of material, such as press conferences (and I've made dozens of such comparisons), he's generally near the bottom in FPSP percentage as compared with other presidents. See the links here if you want details.

    Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, who wrote Trump's inaugural address, put in 4 first-person-singular pronouns in 1455 words (0.27%), compared to 5 in 2409 words for Obama2009 (0.21%) and 7 in 2125 words for Obama2013 (0.33%). So Trump2017 is right in between Obama's two inaugurals, and not significantly different from either one.

    Specifically, if we average Obama's two inaugurals together, we get 12 FPSPs in 4534 words, or 0.265%. Trump's inaugural had 4 FPSPs in 1455 words, or 0.275%, a whole 0.01% higher.

    The percentage of first-person-singular pronouns in all inaugural addresses since JFK:

    Kennedy1961: 0.58%
    Johnson1965: 1.52%
    Nixon1969:   1.36%
    Nixon1973:   0.82%
    Carter1977:  1.38%
    Reagan1981:  1.26%
    Reagan1985:  0.96%
    Bush1989:    1.67%
    Clinton1993: 0.93%
    Clinton1997: 0.37%
    Bush2001:    0.94%
    Bush2005:    0.48%
    Obama2009:   0.21%
    Obama2013:   0.33%
    Trump2017:   0.27%

    Overall, these percentages are quite low — the typical rhetoric of inaugural address doesn't feature FPSPs, compared to press conferences or rally speeches or whatever. But for what it's worth — and again, it's not worth much — in fact Obama's inaugural-address FPSP rates were the lowest of any of the presidents since 1961 (and maybe before that — I haven't checked).

    In conclusion:

    (1) the claims about Obama's "inordinately" frequent use of FPS pronouns are at best fact-free bullshit and at worst lies — unless by "inordinately" someone means "more than I'm disposed to tolerate from an uppity negro"; and

    (2) it's completely irrelevant anyway, given the research results on the correlations between FPSP usage rate and personality.

    So can we stop with the nonsense about comparing pronoun rates?]

  11. Significance • Zhi Chinese said,

    January 24, 2017 @ 2:11 pm

    […] "Slow-talking the inaugural" was just reposted in Significance, a a statistics magazine published by the American Statistical Association and the Royal Statistical Society. Or following their logo, […]

RSS feed for comments on this post