/ 22 August 2008

US candidates face up to image problem

Barack Obama, who is generally regarded as a gifted orator, would do well to find time to unwind before he delivers the speech of his lifetime to the Democratic Party’s convention next week.

A new analysis of Obama’s voice patterns and the delivery of his speeches found the Democratic candidate somewhat restricted in his range of facial expression.

Specifically, Obama’s face is locked in an almost permanent attitude of anxiety, with his forehead muscles contracted.

”In all topics Mr Obama displays a similar worried, serious-looking facial pattern. Even when talking about more positive subjects, his facial expressions do not signal positive affective states,” said a report on the analysis, undertaken by the Vox Institute in Geneva for the Clearwater consulting group.

The institute reviewed footage of Obama’s speeches and those of the Republican candidate, John McCain. It relied on footage from four speeches conveying a range of emotions, as well as digitised voice samples, to rate the effectiveness of the two candidates in connecting with voters on the campaign trail.

The habitual worried look is a potential liability for Obama, undermining the image he is trying to project of a confident leader. The image could be disturbing for audiences, said James McBrien, the founder of Clearwater.

It also undercuts Obama’s outward appearance of extreme confidence.

”There is an element of the fact that he is on the edges of his comfort zone here,” McBrien said. ”Going into a presidential campaign is not something he has done before, and you could say it is written all over his face.”

Despite that failing, Obama was the clear winner against McCain in the oratorical contest. The result is unsurprising, given that McCain’s own campaign team has gone to some effort to conceal his limitations as a speaker.

McCain has had problems adapting to the Autocue, that staple of public speaking. On the campaign trail he has favoured smaller venues, where he can take questions from audiences, rather than the grand venues and stirring speeches that have become Obama’s signature.

Obama had high scores on six of the eight voice values, including diction, fluency, speed and modulation. His voice could have been a little louder at times, although the study praised his ability to reflect anger, positive emotions and sadness.

”The dominating attitude, as transmitted by his vocal style, is that of concern and sincere involvement,” it said. The study also praised Obama’s use of hand gestures.

The verdict on McCain was harsh. The acoustic analysis noted that the Republican’s voice was pitched slightly high, and that it remained flat, or emotionless, even while he was talking about sad subjects.

McCain’s range of facial expression was just as unvaried. ”McCain’s facial repertory is very poor,” the analysis said. ”His smile is often not fully developed, ie his cheek-raising muscles do not participate enough in the expression of positive affect [to be perceived as genuine].”

McBrien put it in terms that were even more stark. ”He has a poker face,” he said. The problem with the lack of expression, according to McBrien, is that it makes it difficult for an audience to trust the speaker.

The Republican is restricted in his range of motion because of injuries sustained during the Vietnam war. He tends to keep his hands by his side when he speaks.

The Vox researchers also picked up on one of McCain’s tics. The candidate, who made a campaign slogan of his plainspeaking in the Straight Talk Express, has a habit of completely shutting his eyes and slightly smiling immediately before coming out with one of his signature sarcastic comments.

‘How many homes do I own? … I’ll get back to you’
McCain, who only days ago said it took an annual income of $5-million to be counted as truly rich, on Thursday came under attack for admitting he had lost track of how many homes he owned.

In a godsend to the Democrats, the Republican was caught out when asked in an interview how many homes he owned. ”I think … I’ll have my staff get to you,” McCain told Politico, a Washington insider news website, and then muttered something about condominiums.

McCain’s wife, Cindy, inherited one of America’s biggest beer distribution firms and has an estimated fortune of $200-million. The couple reportedly own seven homes in Arizona, California and Virginia, worth a combined total of about $13-million. But Politico was told by his campaign they had four.

The Obama camp has been trying to draw attention to the McCains’s wealth, in part to defend the Democrat against Republican charges that he is elitist.

The Democrats reacted on Thursday on several fronts. In Chester, Virginia, Obama said his rival was out of touch.

”Somebody asked John McCain, ‘How many houses do you have?’ And he said, ‘I’m not sure. I’ll have to check with my staff.’ True quote: I’m not sure, I’ll have to check with my staff,” said Obama, whose campaign went on to release a new television advert. Entitled Seven, after the number of McCain properties, it attacks the Republican record on the economy.

The Obama campaign also lined up events around the US to keep the controversy over McCain’s comments alive.

The potential damage to McCain is great as there have been previous controversies over his wife’s refusal to make a full disclosure about her finances, as well as his past comments. Earlier in the campaign, McCain said he believed the US economy remained strong, while an adviser had dismissed concern about the housing crisis and petrol prices as whining. – guardian.co.uk