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If you’re naked, make sure you’re buff: what language says about the person

5 November 2007 8 Comments

What
does a person’s writing say about the person? Plenty, especially if you learn
how to use the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) program developed by
James Pennebaker and colleagues at the University
of Texas at Austin.

You
run text through the program and it categorizes words into 70 linguistic or
psychologically-relevant categories. (See this post on why U.S. presidential candidate John Edwards may be trailing because of his language.)

I
inputted the several recent blog posts from three popular CEO bloggers — Paul
Levy, CEO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Bob Lutz, vice chairman of GM, and
Bill Marriott — and here are the partial results:

LIWC Dimension

Bob
Lutz, GM

Paul
Levy, Beth Israel

Bill
Marriott

LIWC
formal texts

Self-references (honesty)

3.79

2.47

4.55

4.2

Social words (more outgoing)

5.26

6.23

9.62

8.0

Positive emotion words (more optimistic)

1.78

2.85

3.26

2.6

Negative emotion words (anxiety levels)

0.39

1.14

0.86

1.6

Overall cognitive words (How actively thinking about topic)

4.87

5.18

3.09

5.4

Big words (Higher grades, tend to be less emotional)

18.72

25.52

15.72

19.6

Some
admittedly oversimplified takeaways”

·        
Bill Marriott comes across as most honest, outgoing,
and positive.

·        
Paul Levy appears to be especially intelligent, with
cognitive complexity and use of big words. He’s also quite outgoing and more negative than
the other two CEO bloggers. 
Interestingly he’s done an extraordinary job of turning around Beth Israel
Deaconess Hospital

and has been writing about union issues, which may account for the negative
emotion.

·        
Bob Lutz comes across honest and smart.

What
does this have to do with online communications? It’s an area I’m studying and
have no answers yet, just some questions :

·        
Should we “test” people's writing and analyze it
before they start blogging on behalf of the company? (Especially people in high visibility leadership positions?) If they score very
negative, low on honesty or low on cognitive thinking – would this person be a
good representative of the company? Would it be better for someone else to lead online communications efforts?

·        
Is it a good tool to coach others in communicating
in this new conversational world? (Note that many people think that using the
first person “I” is not professional and makes you seem too self-absorbed, but
linguistics scientists have found that not to be so; use of the first person implies
honesty.)

·        
Should we never talk about this tool as it may scare
execs about being naked out in the blogsophere – especially if they aren’t all
that buff when it comes to being positive, cognitively complex and honest?

 
      Does using an analysis tool like this help us be
more aware of ourselves – and help us change our language, and, in turn,
change our behavior?

·        
Lastly, can writing a blog every day make us
healthier?  (Studies have proven that writing
about personal topics 15 – 30 minutes a day improves people’s emotional and
physical health.)

One
last point.  So often in marketing we
obsess over getting the messages right. Maybe we should spend more time on the
language. As Dr. Pennebaker has said in many interviews and articles:

“Over the years it has become apparent that is
far more important to see
how people talked about a given topic
than what they were talking about. People's linguistic styles provide far
richer psychological information than their linguistic content.”

PS
– When you put most companies’  press
release through this linguistic analysis the scores are pitiful.

PPS
– Tomorrow:  The Jerk-0-Meter and its
implications to communications. (A shorter post, I promise.)



8 Comments »

  • Anonymous said:

    Lois,
    Well, Bob Dylan said “sometimes even the president of the United States must have to stand naked….” But that was before Mr. Clinton gave it a different connotation.
    As for your discoveries, last week I was told not only do I have to watch my language but I have to watch my keywords. Now you tell me there are formulas that will measure my sociability, anxiety and honesty! (Good thing they didn't have that when I was writing sweepstakes promotions!)
    This takes me into a whole new arena of discussion. OK, in all transparency (that's blogic for honesty), I used to use a DOS program from Jim Button (giving away my age here!) to measure the Flesch readability score of my writing. But that was because I knew “confuse 'em and you lose 'em.” So it's crucial for copy to be clear and simple.
    But now I am being confronted by a brave new world of computer-driven copy. There are already companies using computers to write their reports. Seems from what you're saying all it takes is a good programmer to replace a room full of monkeys… er, I mean copywriters!
    Reminds me of Woody Allen's routine about how his father was fired because the company got an electrical circuit that did the same job as his, only better. The really sad thing was that his mother went out and bought one!
    Morty

  • Anonymous said:

    Take heart, Morty. I don't think computer-driven copy will win out. People want to connect with people. What some of these tools do is help us be more aware of ourselves and perhaps work on things like being more positive, more open, more truthful.
    Lois

  • Anonymous said:

    Lois,
    That's a relief ;)
    Now, if only there were only a way to box a writing program that catches bad attitude like it does spelling errors!
    Morty

  • Anonymous said:

    Lois,
    Too many “onlys” in my reply. Is that a bad attitude?
    Morty

  • Anonymous said:

    Hi Lois,
    Regarding your point about press releases. Right now, the role of a press release is shifting. I tend to lean toward using a press release as a way to discuss the company's position, which may be why most releases are “impersonal.”
    For those companies embracing social media tools, the press release is not the avenue for fostering a more personal discussion. Rather a blog or other outlet would be.
    You may ask, why not start now with the press release? Frankly, not all companies are ready or comfortable with taking this step.
    I do believe that press releases will change. But I'm not entirely convinced that the social media release is the answer either. I still think it will be a traditional press release augmented with the social media tools available to us.
    The question is the time and effort to make those changes.

  • Anonymous said:

    Lois,
    I see you are still mulling the ramifications of this work. I, too, have some problems with it.
    As you indicate with Paul Levy, sometimes the subject matter doesn't lend itself to optimism, such as a leader communicating during a loss-of-life crisis. Most folks wouldn't want friendly, peppy optimism at that moment.
    Also, the analysis is of written communication. For a presidential candidate, I think it's much more important how they come across on camera — body language — than how they write. How many voters would you guess make their voting decisions based on analyzing written information? I would guess less than 5%.
    Finally, as Csalmonlee indicates in his/her comment, what works for blogs is not necessarily what you want in a news release. You can go much longer in print than you can online due to eyestrain and other issues.
    People like blunt-speaking leaders, yet it seems when running for U.S. President, blunt speaking will likely offend some people and take a candidate out of the running. Who is willing to say we need to raise taxes to cut the deficit?
    When I look at the recent history of U.S. Presidential elections, it seems to me the race goes to the candidate who can emote the best on TV while saying the least in print.
    STEVE O'KEEFE

  • Anonymous said:

    Hi Steve,
    I'm a she =)
    Cece

  • Anonymous said:

    Neat stuff. Will use shorter, happier words from now on! :)

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