Two Million Speeches

When politicians try to tug the heart strings

Speeches that elicit pleasure, excitement, or anger can be a powerful way to get people to listen to your message. Politicians know this.

Politicians also know their audience. It’s how they got elected. They know to target a speech to get the desired effect. They know the tone they should use with the voters. On the campaign trail, a politicians’ target & tone is easy to spot.

Obama and Trump, eight years apart, talk about how corporations move good-paying manufacturing jobs overseas.

Here is Obama’s famous 2008 speech in Philadelphia:

“This time, we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time, we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.”

And that by Donald Trump when we accepted the Republican nomination for President in 2016:

“I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country, and they are forgotten, but they will not be forgotten long. These are people who work hard but no longer have a voice. I am your voice.”

For the same policy issue, Obama used words like “decent life” and “real problem,” and Trump ramped up the emotion with words like “horrible” and “unfair.”

They use emotional words to connect with the voters.

But do politicians use these campaign tricks while in parliament?

And why would they do so?

The Media Is Present

When politicians talk during parliamentary debates, they talk to their colleagues.

Ah, but they know that they could also speak to the voters at the same time. For some speeches, they know that the media is watching. 

But not always: the media is watching when the parliamentary debate promises to be exciting. It does not happen often, but politicians know that the media is watching on certain days.

Political scientist Moritz Osnabrügge and colleagues in the American Political Science Review looked at nearly a million speeches from 2001 to 2019 in the UK (House of Commons). For good measure, they looked at a million more from the lower house of the Irish Parliament, Dáil Éireann.

That’s a whopping two million parliamentary speeches. (They used a computer)

The political scientists reasoned that legislators will ramp up the emotion in “high visibility” speeches. These are speeches that come on popular days of the parliamentary calendar, such as Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), where rank-and-file parliamentarians ask questions to the Prime Minister, and the opening day of the Queen’s Speech debates.

So Emotional

How do you measure emotion?

The researchers looked at the emotional level of the words that the legislators used. Their method was this:

Speeches are comprised of words. Many of the words politicians use appear in the Affective Norms for English Words (ANEW) dictionary. Psychologists scored ANEW dictionary words as they are related to “pleasure, arousal, and dominance.” Examples of emotional words are “appalling,” “worthlessness,” and “anguish,” as well as “inspiring,” “empathy,” and “applauded.” Then there are the neutral (snooze-worthy) words, like “embankment” and “borehole.”

Using ANEW, the political scientists scored each word from the parliamentary speeches. That way, each speech has an emotion score. With this score the political scientists can know the level of emotion of any given speech at any given date.  

Remember: It’s not the number of emotional words. It’s how emotion-invoking those words are. 

Most parliamentary speeches are like this:

“When used with old-fashioned copper wires, 10 megabits can become a lot less than that. We need a superfast fibre infrastructure instead of copper wires,” said Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, MP of the Conservatives.

It’s hard to squeeze emotion out of a copper wire.

But check out the speech by Alec Shelbrooke, MP of the Conservatives:

“Evil happens when good people stand by and do nothing. There is evil running through and infiltrating the Labour party, but it is full of good people and they are trying to do something about it. I commend them, appreciate them and have nothing but respect for them.”

Words like “good” and “evil” are ear-catching. “Infiltrating” and “respect” also evoke emotions.

Politicians Speak to the Media and the Voters, Sometimes

Could it be that some speeches have a high emotion-level because some parliamentarians are simply more likely to be emotional? In other words, the legislator is emotional because of the party they are from, or their seniority, or their gender or age.

The political scientists found that these attributes may matter, but its when the speech was made that matters more.

Perhaps it is about the policy topic. Some policies, for example on reproductive rights, may be more emotional than others, and speeches would therefore be more emotional.

They found that, yes, policy may matter, but its when the speech was made that matters more.

As the researchers had thought:

Parliamentarians ramped up the emotional fervor of their speeches strategically.

They did it when they thought the media, and by proxy the voters, are more likely to be watching.


Well, the political scientists didn’t ask the MPs about why they do it, but they offered a few theories, anyway. Politicians do it to get re-elected, they reasoned. The speech is for “the folks back home.” Or they do it to campaign for a higher profile job (a senator makes a “big speech” on the Congress floor as a prelude to their run for the presidency, or an MP wants a cabinet position, etc.). Or, they simply want to call attention to the issue.

No matter the reason:

Emotions hook the media and the media hooks the voters.

Every politician knows this. They do it on the campaign trail.

And they do it, strategically, while in office.


This was written by Josh Dubrow based on Osnabrügge, Moritz, Sara B. Hobolt, and Toni Rodon. “Playing to the Gallery: Emotive Rhetoric in Parliaments.” American Political Science Review (2021): 1–15.

The speeches from the UK lower house, AKA The House of Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, were from 2001–2019. They looked at the Prime Minister Questions PMQ, which is the highest profile, as well as Ministerial Question Times, Queen’s Speech debates, and Urgent Questions (p. 888). The Queen’s Speech is the Queen’s official statement about her preferred legislative priorities. They didn’t include speeches that were less than 40 characters long. The Ireland speeches were 2002–2013. They used a big computer program to do all this.

The individual characteristics were “party, party leadership position, ministerial position, shadow cabinet, seniority, committee chairmanship, gender, and age” (p. 889).

ANEW words are from a study by Bradley, M.M., & Lang, P.J. (1999). Affective norms for English words (ANEW): Instruction manual and affective ratings. Technical Report C-1, The Center for Research in Psychophysiology, University of Florida. To get the emotional value of words, Bradley and Lang administered a kind of survey instrument (it kind of looks like a Scantron form) to “Introductory Psychology class students, balanced for gender, participated as part of a course requirement” (Bradley and Lang 1999: 2). The students were told, “Please work at a rapid place and don’t spend too much time thinking about each word. Rather, make your ratings based on your first and immediate reaction as you read each word” (Bradley and Lang 1999: 3). Pleasure and arousal are what you might think. Dominance is about “feelings characterized as completely controlled, influenced, cared-for, awed, submissive, or guided” (Bradley and Lang 1999: 2). For example, the word “leader” had a high dominance score. To the students, “diploma” had a high pleasure score (Table 1, p. 7). Predictably, the word “intercourse” had a high score on all three dimensions.

“When used with old-fashioned copper wires…” p. 891.

“Evil happens when…” p. 891

Copyright Occam’s Press 2021: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND

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