Candidate Hillary Clinton’s speeches were less compelling than those of now-President Donald Trump. We all understood this. But I, for one, would stumble over my own words each time I tried to describe what made Trump’s speeches so much more effective.
Fortunately, Randy Olson and Jayde Lovell will tell you what made Trump’s speeches so much more effective without stumbling—and they have summarized the method to make it handy for us scientists. I learned about their approach at their session at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas last month. Their method, called “ABT” for “And, But, Therefore,” forms the basis of Olson’s most recent book Houston, We Have a Narrative (University of Chicago Press, 2015).
As a candidate, Clinton spoke in lists, as many scientists and other intellectuals do, marshaling a wide range of facts and expressing many angles on each topic. Olson and Lovell would say that Clinton spoke mostly in “ands.” Trump, on the other hand, asserted only his opinions and plans, leaving no room for disagreement. Olson and Lovell would say that Trump speaks in “buts,” each sentence ablaze with narrative.
This claim rang true to me immediately. I think I even feel the word “but” was implied by Trump’s favorite index-finger-in-the-air hand gesture. It reminds me of a similar gesture I taught my kids to use when they need to say something but they have their food in their mouths.
Olson and Lovell go a step further and argue that the ratio of “buts” to “ands” in a speech serves as a useful diagnostic of good narrative. Olson has analyzed many well-known speeches and writings, counted the number of “ands” and counted the number of “buts” in each one. The but-to-and ratio predicts Abraham Lincoln’s victory over Stephen Douglas, he explained. Clinton’s speeches tend to score near 1/5 (one but for every five ands). Trump’s but-to-and ratio generally ranks the highest among all presidents, typically coming in around 1/3.
Indeed, others have pointed to the hazards of overusing the word “and” and the importance of using the word “but” to make communications sound conversational or to appeal to regional crowds. In an attempt to improve the writing style of communications from his institution, the chief economist of the World Bank recently proclaimed that he would not clear a final report for publication if “and” comprised more than 2.6 percent of the text.
Jack Grieve, professor of corpus linguistics at the University of Birmingham, maps the use of words on Twitter to help understand the evolution of language. He pointed out to me that tweets originating in the South tend to use the word “but” more often than tweets coming from elsewhere in the United States.
But this simple index does not impress everyone. Professor Jennifer Mercieca at Texas A&M University, a historian of American political rhetoric, admonished me that Trump tends to fill the pauses with random conjunctions. “I think my rhetorical studies colleagues would feel a little uncomfortable just counting the numbers of ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ and ‘therefores,’” she said.