Presidential fluency

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In a number of posts about Donald Trump's rhetorical style, I've noted how seldom he uses filled pauses such as UM and UH in spontaneous speech, compared to other public figures. For example, in "The narrow end of the funnel" (8/18/2016), I noted that filled pauses were 8.2% of Steve Bannon's words (in a sample passage from a panel discussion on The Future of Conservatism), and 4.0% of Hilary Clinton's words in a Vox interview, while three of Trump's unscripted rally speeches had between 0% and 0.05% filled pauses, and in a CNBC interview, Trump used 74 filled pauses in 5329 words, for a rate of 1.4%.

Like many others, I've noted how often Trump abandons a discourse thread in mid-phrase, sometimes returning to it after a digression, and sometimes just forging ahead with new themes. (See e.g. "The em-dash candidate" (8/15/2016) and "Disfluencies and smiles" (9/30/2016).) And I've certainly also noted his fondness for phrasal repetitions, sometimes literal and sometimes transformed or paraphrased, which is one of the factors leading to his low rate of vocabulary display. (See "Donald Trump's repetitive rhetoric" (12/5/2015), "Trump's rhetorical style" (12/26/2015), "Vocabulary display in the CNN debate" (9/18/2015), "Political vocabulary display" (9/10/2015), and  "More political text analytics" (4/15/2016).)

But I don't believe that I've noted, at least quantitatively, how rarely Donald Trump exhibits the type of disfluency where the leading edge of a phrase is rapidly repeated, sometimes to correct a pronunciation or inflection, and sometimes just as an apparent hitch in the speech production process. Nor do I think I've noted how little dead air (AKA pause for thought) there is in his spontaneous speech.

Since I recently transcribed President Trump's 10/25/2017 interview with Lou Dobbs, I thought I'd calculate some relevant statistics and report them. As a point of comparison, I'll take  a comparable portion (more time, fewer words) of President Barack Obama's 12/19/2016 interview with Steve Inskeep:

TIME (seconds) 1019.3 1524.5
WORDS 3625 3072
Words per minute 214 121
UH+UM 28+3 142+16
Words per filled pause 117 19
Rapid repairs/repetitions 10 38
Words per rapid repair 364 81
Abandoned phrases 34 2
Words per AP 107 1536

Thus Trump's speaking rate is about 1.77 times Obama's; his filled pauses are six times less frequent; his rapid repairs are about 4.5 times less frequent; and his abandoned phrases are more than 14 times more frequent.

Does this mean that Trump is more fluent than Obama? In the etymological sense of fluent as "flowing", that is absolutely true. But Obama does not show us the incoherence sometimes associated with disfluency — rather, he's speaking in a careful, judicious way, choosing phrases that (with filled pauses and rapid repairs edited out) are close to the style of written prose. And despite many attempts to characterize Trump's style as incoherent and even "aphasic", his rhetoric has the fluency of relatively unmonitored spontaneous speech, while lacking most of the normal signs of difficulties in thinking of what to say, deciding how to say it, and performing the chosen word stream.

Here's the first substantive Q&A from the Dobbs/Trump interview, with an UH or two edited out of Trump's contributions:

DOBBS: And yet, as you say, we need tax reform. You're meeting resistance from within your own party. You're meeting resistance from the Democrats. How do you move from here?

TRUMP: Well, I think we're going to get it. I think these Senators are going to come together. I think the House is looking really good, you know, they're passing this bill along very rapidly. In fact, that's going to happen hopefully today. And I did make a couple of calls, I said fellas, please, no changes, just pass it along, we have to get tax cuts, and just pass it along. Now normally, they want to make their fifteen points or their twenty points and then it has to go back and it has to be re-voted and everything else. I said just pass it along, and they said think we're going to do that. And let's see what happens. But I think they're going to do that. And so look, we have actually in the Republican Party, in a true sense, we have great unity. Look at the Democrats with Bernie Sanders who got absolutely taken advantage of by the DNC. And now see it, you know, all the stuff coming out. You see what's happening. But you look at Hillary and Bernie, that's big league stuff. We have very, very minor– we have great unity. I was with the Senate yesterday, the entire Republican Senate. And other than two people, I tell you, there was a lot of love in that room. […]

DOBBS: So where do we go uh in- in terms of capital uh repatriation uh for corporate America, how do you incentivize corporations to get back uh to America with all of that money uh for investment in jobs uh plant equipment, uh research and development?

TRUMP: So we have many things. Number one, we're bringing the corporate rate down to twenty percent from thirty five percent. That's a massive– this will be the biggest tax cut in history. In the history of our country. And that's great. And we need it. Because right now, our country's about the highest taxed or certainly one of the highest taxed in the world. And we can't have that. So we're going to have a country that's toward the lower end. I can't say it's the lowest. You know, Ireland is going now lower and others are going lower. They played the game a lot better than our people have played the game, I can tell you that. But we're going to have a country that's going to have tax incentive now.

And we are going to bring back– you know, I've been talking and I even heard you say it not so long ago — two and a half trillion. But you and I have both been using that number for years. That number is much higher now, because it's, you know, built up over the years. And I would be surprised if it weren't close to four trillion dollars. That money's coming back. And nobody would bring it back now because the tax is so astronomical, they'd have to be desperate to bring it back. I mean any company that would bring it back and pay the tax that they have to pay, which probably ends up being close to 40 percent, who's going to pay that to bring money back in? So what they do is they leave their money in these other places and other countries and they spend it there and they create a lot of additional wealth there. We want the money coming back here. But it could be four trillion dollars. And what we're doing is substantially lowering the tax. And we're also getting rid of all the bureaucratic hurdles. It wasn't just the tax. I have friends that want to bring money back. The amount of work they have to do to get the approval to bring the money back is absolutely ridiculous. So that's going away also.

And here's an analogous exchange from the Inskeep/Obama interview, with many filled pauses and rapid repairs edited out:

INSKEEP: Is this just a matter of showing up, or is there something wrong with the argument?

OBAMA: I don't think there's something wrong with the core argument that the Democratic Party has made for years. And the reason we know that is because on the individual issues that Democrats talk about there's strong support. For example, the minimum wage. In every survey across the country, people support a higher minimum wage.

There are clearly, though, failures on our part to give people in rural areas, or in exurban areas, a sense day-to-day that we're fighting for them or connected to them. Some of it is the prism through which they're seeing the political debate take place. They may know less about the work that my administration did on trying to promote collective bargaining or overtime rules. But they know a lot about the controversy around transgender bathrooms because it's more controversial, it attracts more attention. I think that on something like the Affordable Care Act, you have people who are benefiting right now from Obamacare who either don't know it's Obamacare or consider that as a given and then end up voting on Second Amendment rights.

So part of the reason it's important to show up, and when I say show up, I don't just mean during election time, but to be in there engaging and listening and being with people, is because it then builds trust and it gives you a better sense of how should you talk about issues in a way that feels salient and feel meaningful to people.

And I've said this before — part of the reason I got elected twice and part of the reason why in a lot of these communities I still have pretty strong support, was the incredible benefit that I had in first running for the United States Senate in a state that has a lot of rural communities and has a downstate that typically is suspicious of Chicagoans and the city. And just sitting down in people's living rooms and VFW halls and at fish fries, and listening to people. And then in Iowa, spending months traveling around the state and hearing people's concerns and them hearing me and getting a sense that I get it. So that even during my low points in the presidency, when, you know, poll numbers were bad, news cycle was critical, people always felt as if I still cared about them, which meant that in two thousand twelve I might still lose the overall vote and some of these counties or some of these uh voting districts, but I might lose fifty five forty five or sixty forty rather than eighty twenty. That's as a consequence of not only them seeing me in these places but it's also a consequence of me actually being there and hearing them.




  1. Victor Mair said,

    October 31, 2017 @ 8:02 am

    I think that he does not want to come across as hesitant or uncertain. He wants to be seen as a man of affirmation and action.

    [(myl) Easy to want, hard to do — as implied by the popularity of the game "Just a minute", which requires competitors to "to talk for sixty seconds on a given subject, "without hesitation, repetition or deviation". Donald Trump might be faulted for frequent repetition and occasional deviation, but he certainly wins on lack of hesitation.]

  2. Anthony said,

    October 31, 2017 @ 9:05 am

    Does having a legal education make a difference? Lawyers know that it is helpful to choose words carefully (except, of course, when vagueness is the goal). Of recent presidents, non-lawyers were: Trump, Bush II, Bush I, Reagan, Carter, Johnson, and Kennedy.

  3. Bartleby said,

    October 31, 2017 @ 10:43 am

    I wonder whether Trump's "fluency" might be a result of his small vocabulary. Perhaps he doesn't have to search for words because he has so few to choose from. Or perhaps he just doesn't feel the need to find the exact or precise word.

    Or perhaps I'm being unfair to him because I find him to be so utterly incompetent for the office he holds.

  4. Orin Hargraves said,

    October 31, 2017 @ 12:14 pm

    I wonder whether his obvious high comfort level with anacolutha is a reflection of a more general philosophy to never look back!

  5. D.O. said,

    October 31, 2017 @ 12:40 pm

    Not to subtract from your main point, but Obama's fragment comes not at all close to the edited prose. It is very clearly a recorded speech. Obama's speech seems to me more toward the written style (apart from fluency and getting self-distracted issues) in that he uses grammatical features (like coordination/subordination) in more typically written manner than Trump. I am not a linguist (even amateur) so take this comment as an ocular trauma thing.

  6. Mark Meckes said,

    October 31, 2017 @ 2:35 pm

    As far as I recall, you've mostly compared Trump's speech to that of past presidents and other political figures. Have you made any similar comparisons with other plausible peer groups, like business executives or television personalities?

    [(myl) Not explicit comparisons to Donald Trump — but e.g. "UM/UH accommodation" 11/24/2015; "Sex and speaking rate", 8/7/2006; "Regional speech rates", 10/13/2007; "How fast do people talk in court?", 3/21/2009; "Poetic sound and silence", 2/12/2016; "Some speech style dimensions", 6/27/2016; … ]

  7. Rubrick said,

    October 31, 2017 @ 6:19 pm

    Trump's use of repitition to avoid pauses reminds me a bit of a rap freestyler who's flailing.

  8. Katja said,

    November 1, 2017 @ 9:09 am

    I was going to make the same point as Victor Mair. To me this is nothing but a long since acquired strategy to avoid coming across as looking for words and being hesitant. Just as we were told in our schooldays. With the drawback that it his brains don't sustain the desired expressiveness and he probably never set himself to acquiring substitute strategies that help avoid 'ums' yet show you ways of delivering a coherent and structured piece of discourse at the same time.

  9. Anna in PDX said,

    November 1, 2017 @ 1:42 pm

    In your table, what is the final row, "words per AP," referring to?

    [(myl) "Words per Abandoned Phrase".]

  10. JPL said,

    November 1, 2017 @ 5:59 pm

    "Abandoned phrases", in addition to being a good song title, is an interesting phenomenon. Why are these ill- fated phrases abandoned? Why not finish them? (And now that Anna in PDX mentions it, what does "words per abandoned phrase" mean? "Average number of words between abandoned phrases"? (Also, "words per rapid repair".)

    For the "equivalent idea – different starting point" case (E.g., "That's a massive — this will be the biggest tax cut in history." All he has to do is say "reduction"; that's a nice word: why does he pass up the opportunity to say it?), he may prefer abandoning a problematic starting point and substituting a somehow simpler expression, rather than reorganizing the expression to get an equivalent meaning with the original starting point. (I kind of enjoy doing the latter, so I don't think I'm a big phrase-abandoner.) Is there a typology of abandoned phrases?

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