The qualities that define charismatic leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Henry Ford, and Winston Churchill have intrigued organizational scholars for years. Research such as that pursued by Naidoo and Lord in the latest volume of The Leadership Quarterly (2008, Vol. 19, Iss. 3) ensures that such efforts will continue.
In their work, Naidoo and Lord sought to examine the effects of speech imagery and individuals’ emotional states on perceptions of charisma and overall leadership effectiveness. Speech imagery can broadly be defined as content that “paints a picture” and arouses emotional responses in listeners. For example, take the following high imagery quote delivered by Theodore Roosevelt: “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor souls who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” Stirring, no? That’s exactly what Naidoo and Lord found—an orator delivering a speech was seen as more charismatic and a better leader when the content was spoken using high versus low imagery words.
Furthermore, greater speech imagery created stronger positive emotions in listeners,
which significantly contributed to ratings of charisma and leadership. Lastly, listeners’
ratings of leader charisma decreased during descriptions of a negative event (i.e., a problem facing the audience), but later increased during descriptions of the speaker’s positive vision (i.e., a potential solution).
So, the moral of the story—a picture’s worth a thousand words, even when you paint it with your mouth. And if you’re looking for just the right words to spark that vision, check out Martindale’s (1975) Regressive Imagery Dictionary or Friendly et al.’s (1982) Toronto Word Pool for a list of words that have been empirically rated for imagery and concreteness to help you win over that next crowd (or country, as the case may be).
Friendly, M., Franklin, P. E., Hoffman, D., & Rubin, D. C. (1982). The Toronto word pool: Norms for imagery, concreteness, orthographic variables, and grammatical usagefor 1,080 words. Behavior, Research Methods, and Instrumentation, 14, 375−399. Martindale, C. (1975). Romantic progression: The psychology of literary history. Washington, DC: Hemisphere.