Tackling COVID-19 with charisma in U.S. governor speeches

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A new study of U.S. state governors’ speeches during the COVID-19 pandemic reveals charisma was a factor in persuading people to stay home and affected their conclusions about the virus’ dangers to public health.

A study conducted by researchers at ASU School of Public Affairs found that improving the charisma of state governors during their press briefings could have potentially saved more lives during the COVID-19 pandemic by encouraging people to stay at home. The study analyzed 350 speeches given by governors from all 50 states between February and May 2020.

We spoke with Dr. Ulrich Jensen, an Associate Professor at the School of Public Affairs at ASU, to learn more.

Charisma can be learned. While many might think charisma is something you’re born with, it isn’t, according to Dr. Jensen. It can be reduced to specific communication tactics leaders can use that stick with listeners.

“We can crack the code on what charisma actually is,” Dr. Jensen said. “That’s signaling charisma using different kinds of rhetorical techniques.”

The results emphasize how crucial effective communication and leadership skills can be when politicians are called upon to lead during a difficult time.

“We looked at what the governors actually said, so we didn’t really ask people how charismatic is Doug Ducey,” Dr. Jensen said. “We looked at what did they actually say in their COVID-19 press briefings, the words that were coming out of their mouths.”

Researchers created an advanced computer program capable of scanning large text passages and identifying specific rhetorical techniques, including the use of rhetorical questions and metaphors to shape narratives. This system allowed researchers to score particular governors on how charismatic their speeches were.

“We found that the more charismatic the governor was, the more people actually stayed home,” Dr. Jensen said.

Read the full article on the ScienceDirect website here.

Dr. Ulrich Jensen, Associate Professor, School of Public Affairs at ASU

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