The Chiefs of Presidential Speech

A Presidential Showdown

Who were the most impactful presidents? Well, we are of course going to distinguish the distinguished by the overall impact of their words. What were their linguistic qualities, quirks, and oddities? What is the influence their words had on our political discourse and day-to-day life?

With words in mind, we've put together this list of U.S Presidents whose speaking styles have spurred the most conversation—and perhaps the most controversy.

Barack H. Obama

Though critiqued for his cool reserve and professorial manner, Barack Obama possesses an inarguably eloquent speech style. One of his favorite phrases as president, “Let me be clear,” helped him deliver his most impactful words when explaining his stances on many issues.

He often flavored his speeches with expressions of gratitude and humility, mentioning family and community. Obama’s stint teaching constitutional law colored his academic demeanor, but it didn’t drain him of his sense of humor and uncanny comedic timing. Linguists have compared his cadence and delivery to that of Martin Luther King, Jr. and his restrained style and pitch range to that of John F. Kennedy.

Donald J. Trump

Love him or hate him, it's undeniable that his signature style of communication has been yugely influential on American life. Trump entered the White House as one of the most socially connected presidents to date. He utilized social media to speak with constituents in a way that no other candidate could do before.

Even though critics despise his quick Twitter fingers and penchant for dramatic posterizing, there’s no doubt that Donald Trump is skilled at communicating his agenda with catchy slogans and repetitive phrases. It would be our guess that he has set the bar for the future of presidential campaigns and announcements.

John F. Kennedy

Following the years of war that were presided over by Dwight D. Eisenhower, the charming and youthful John F. Kennedy became a potent force in politics. Kennedy had been an uncomfortable and stiff speaker in his earliest political days, but with hard work, he created a legacy that cemented him as a timeless orator. Kennedy used the “language of feeling,” and was motivational instead of argumentative. Of course, his good looks and easy demeanor didn't hurt either.

Abraham Lincoln

Sadly, we’ll never hear sound recordings of Abraham Lincoln’s voice, but he was an immaculate speaker (and riveting storyteller) by all accounts. Consider that Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address was less than 250 words. That wasn’t because his quill ran out of ink! Although incredibly intelligent, Honest Abe understood that brevity can be a powerful speaking tool. Sometimes, less is more.

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Before Twitter or Facebook, there was radio. Franklin D. Roosevelt took full advantage of this cutting edge technology in 1933 to broadcast his thoughts directly to the American people.

Roosevelt’s fireside chats were both innovative and earnest. His broadcasts are frequently credited with renewing American optimism after the Great Depression. But why were these simple radio broadcasts so effective? Historians suggest that Roosevelt’s calm yet decisive manner of speaking inspired courage and resilience in his listeners.

George Washington

Washington must have been an extremely skilled communicator to lead the Continental Army to such an unlikely victory. According to historians, he was indeed a distinguished speaker, but not in the way you might expect.

Under intense pressure during the Revolutionary War, Washington communicated in a calm, collected, and vigilant fashion. This composure aided him in inspiring his weary troops. Historians often write about Washington's poise, which continues to galvanize and intrigue American citizens to this day.

Ronald Regan

Ronald Reagan was an actor in Hollywood long before he became a politician and ultimately our 40th president in 1981. His acting days undoubtedly helped polish his often-revered style of public speaking.

Remembered for phrases such as “evil empire” and “Tear down this wall!” (Both rather dramatic and Hollywood-esque words when you think about it.) This moderate Republican even appealed to Democrats. There's no doubt his warm and relaxed speaking style—which made people feel at ease—had something to do with it.

William J. Clinton

Though Bill Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law graduate, he also spoke with a folksy essence, likely due to his fondness for explaining things in plain language.

He frequently used the compound “y’all,” and he had a pointed way of engaging whomever he was talking to with phrases such as, “Let me ask you,” or “Do you think...?” Even political opponents might agree that Clinton possessed immaculate talent for relating to voters thanks to his poise at the podium.

George W. Bush

George W. Bush, our 43rd president, was also an Ivy League student (Yale and Harvard Business). He was raised in Texas, born into an oil-and-politics family. His spiritual side certainly colored his earthy speaking style, in which he displayed a fondness for words like “faith” and “blessings.”

Bush became infamous for creating words like “misunderestimate” and for dismantling syntax the same way he chopped brush at his Texas ranch. His blunt, “down home” language (“When I take action, I’m not going to fire a two million dollar missile at a ten dollar empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It’s going to be decisive.”), had an agreeable, folksy flavor.

Jimmy Carter

The former Georgian peanut farmer and Navy man was one of the first presidents to wear his spiritual heart on his sleeve, and he’s often remembered for confessing to having had “lust in his heart” during an interview with Playboy Magazine.

His earnest persona may have been visionary. He often spoke directly, yet it was softened by his Georgia accent. His 1979  “Crisis of Confidence” is considered a watermark in presidential speeches, where he addressed doubt and the “loss of unity of purpose for our nation.”

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