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Revealed: why we applaud politicians' speeches

From a talk by a senior lecturer and a researcher from the University of Yorkto the British PsychologicalSociety Conference

According to Atkinson's theory of rhetoric, a limited range of rhetorical devices, such as three-part lists and contrasts, are consistently effective in "inviting" audience applause to political speeches.

According to Atkinson's theory of rhetoric, a limited range of rhetorical devices, such as three-part lists and contrasts, are consistently effective in "inviting" audience applause to political speeches.

Atkinson's critical insight was to propose that these rhetorical devices indicate to the audience not only what to applaud but also when to applaud, through the projection of clear completion points. Their effectiveness is reflected in the close synchronisation between speech and audience applause. An analysis of 476 British political speeches found that more than two thirds of incidences of collective applause were associated with seven rhetorical devices.

Atkinson's theory has been highly influential, but suffers from one serious and underlying weakness. This is the failure to examine negative examples which might be inconsistent with his theory, such as non-rhetorically formatted statements which evoke collective applause, and incidences of applause not fully synchronised with speech.

In one of our studies, it was found that audience applause is often not synchronised with speech: it may be delayed, interruptive or sporadic. Indeed, in a sample of six speeches, only 61 per cent of applause incidences were found to be fully synchronised with speech. In a second study, an analysis was conducted of collective applause which occurred in the absence of rhetorical devices. Typically, such applause was found to be unsynchronised with speech, and to occur in response to statements of policy - statements rich in content.

We proposed that there are not one but two processes whereby applause occurs in political speeches. There is the process analysed by Atkinson, in which the speaker indicates through the rhetorical structure when and where applause is appropriate. Since this process is effectively initiated by the speaker, it might be referred to as "invited applause". There is also a second process, whereby applause in the absence of rhetorical devices seems to occur as a direct response to specific aspects of speech content. Since this process appears to be initiated by the audience (or certain sectors of it), it may be entitled "uninvited applause." Whereas invited applause, according to Atkinson, is typically synchronised with speech, this is not the case with uninvited applause. It may be initiated by a few people, and there may be a substantial delay before it is taken up by the rest of the audience (staggered onset).

But how can we say what proportion of invited and uninvited applause is synchronised with speech? Do we have any idea of the relative distribution of invited and uninvited applause in political speeches?

To address these questions, it was decided to conduct a more systematic test of invited and uninvited applause. Twelve speeches have been transcribed for the purpose of this analysis - those delivered by the leaders of the three principal British political parties to their autumn party political conferences over the past four years (Blair, 1996-9; Major, 1996; Hague, 1997-9; Ashdown 1996-8; Kennedy, 1999). Applause is coded according to whether or not it is synchronised with speech, and according to whether or not it is invited through rhetorical devices.

Although the concept of invited applause draws heavily on Atkinson's concept of rhetorical devices, it should not be seen as synonymous with it. There may be other ways in which speakers invite applause, and the new coding procedure allows for this. The presence of rhetorical devices does not necessarily constitute an invitation to applaud; the delivery of the message is also important.

Atkinson argued that appropriate delivery increases the chance of a rhetorical device being applauded, but an alternative point of view is that delivery can indicate whether or not a rhetorical device should be seen as an invitation to applaud. Delivery is of comparable importance to the presence or absence of rhetorical devices.