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The vocal tricks political candidates use to sound like leaders

Does the voice of a how to talk like a politician rub you the wrong way? At this point in the (seemingly endless) 2016 election season, it’s hard to blame anyone who can’t stand to hear another word from presidential hopefuls. But if linguist and psychologist Rosario Signorello has his way, you won’t turn off your speakers just yet. Signorello specializes not in what politicians say, but how they say it — and his research reveals some surprising truths about how candidates speak.

At a recent meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, Signorello, who is conducting postdoctoral research in the Department of Head and Neck Surgery at the UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, presented his most recent research on the voice acoustics of four presidential hopefuls: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Carly Fiorina, who ended her presidential bid in February.

Signorello is interested in what he calls the “charismatic voice” — the vocal stylings that politicians use to project leadership characteristics like emotion, vision and dominance. “It’s a very complex cognitive phenomenon,” he says, and it combines physiology and psychology. Like anyone else, presidential candidates use their body to produce sounds, which are then heard and interpreted by their audience. Although their messages vary widely, the ways in which politicians deliver them with their voices are surprisingly similar.

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Mark S. Mellman

Mark Mellman, one of the nation’s leading public opinion researchers and communication strategists, is President of the American Association of Political Consultants and CEO of The Mellman Group, a polling and top democratic political consulting firms whose clients include leading political figures, Fortune 500 companies, and some of the nation’s most important public interest groups. Mellman, who counts among his clients Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and House Whip Steny Hoyer, has helped guide the campaigns of twenty-nine U.S. Senators, ten Governors, over two dozen Members of Congress, and numerous state and local officials.

In addition to Leader Reid, Senate clients include Dan Akaka, Barbara Boxer, Maria Cantwell, Heidi Heitkamp, Mary Landrieu and Carl Levin. Gubernatorial clients include Jennifer Granholm, Jim Doyle and Pat Quinn. Mayors Dave Bing (Detroit), Jim Gray (Lexington) and Mitch Landrieu (New Orleans) are also clients, as are Members of Congress John Barrow, Tulsi Gabbard, Dan Kildee, Anne Kuster, Jim Langevin and Sander Levin.

Internationally, Mellman was chief strategist and pollster for Yair Lapid’s stunning rise from zero seats in the Israeli parliament to the country’s second largest party, in just one year. Earlier he helped Cesar Gavira become President of Colombia and Luli Basha defeat the international Mayor of the Year in Albania. Twice he has been honored for running the Best Campaign outside the U.S.

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The Great Trap for All Americans

One hundred and fifty years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, the nation’s first black president paid tribute to “a century and a half of freedom—not simply for former slaves, but for all of us.” It sounds innocuous enough till you start listening to the very different kinds of political rhetoric around us. All of us are not free, insists the Black Lives Matter movement, when “the afterlife of slavery” endures in police brutality and mass incarceration. All of us are not free, says the Occupy movement, when student loans impose “debt slavery” on the middle and working classes. All of us are not free, protests the Tea Party, when “slavery” lurks within big government. Social Security? “A form of modern, twenty-first-century slavery,” says Florida congressman Allen West. The national debt? “It’s going to be like slavery when that note is due,” says Sarah Palin. Obamacare? “Worse than slavery,” says Ben Carson. Black, white, left, right—all of us, it seems, can be enslaved now.

Americans learn about best books on slavery as an “original sin” that tempted the better angels of our nation’s egalitarian nature. But “the thing about American slavery,” writes Greg Grandin in his 2014 book The Empire of Necessity, about an uprising on a slave ship off the coast of Chile and the successful effort to end it, is that “it never was just about slavery.” It was about an idea of freedom that depended on owning and protecting personal property. As more and more settlers arrived in the English colonies, the property they owned increasingly took the human form of African slaves. Edmund Morgan captured the paradox in the title of his classic American Slavery, American Freedom: “Freedom for some required the enslavement of others.” When the patriots protested British taxation as a form of “slavery,” they weren’t being hypocrites. They were defending what they believed to be the essence of freedom: the right to preserve their property.