Did the King’s Speech have the common touch?

In The King’s Speech, the Oscar winning 2010 film about King George VI’s conquering his speech impediment and giving one verbally to Hitler, the climax is the king’s speech to the empire on the outbreak of war.

His brief speech of just 400 words (or less than three tweets to put it in English 2.0) is contrasted with the prime minister’s, Neville Chamberlain’s, earlier in the day and the gloom it inspires as listeners collapse around the radio. I wondered if this was merely dramatic licence or if the king’s speech really was the better one of the two.

The king’s speech and the prime minister’s speech

Emotionally of course a declaration of war (at 2min 6s in the second video) is going to be seen as a low point by most individuals, particularly as Chamberlain’s efforts for peace were largely supported by Britons, so admitting all those concessions had been for nothing would deflate. Chamberlain was for peace at any price whereas the king was seen as a lot less involved.

Yet I wondered if the sense of defeat shown in the film would have really reacted or if Chamberlain had been set up us the opposite of King George’s speech. So I ran a little analysis through my favourite tool, the LIWC.

Analysing speeches – are they talking to you?

Neville Chamberlain, King George VI and a microphone

Chamberlain versus King

Unlike past analyses, I broke down each speech line-by-line as King George’s speech was only 406 words and Chamberlain’s 535. To allow comparison easier I then converted results into how far along the speech as a percentage results appear.

I then sent each one through the analyser to look at not just sentiment and emotion but things like pronoun use (I/we/you/us/he etc). Now positive and negative emotion is easy to classify, but what about audience? Looking at research there are suggestions that pronouns that are seen as inclusive are we/us and them/him (as in “us v them”), while using I and you excludes and alienates others (“you people”).

Though I’d prefer more research on this area to go on and as with most theories, there is debate, let’s run with this for now.

Speech results – who said it best, king or commoner?

Here are two charts, the first showing the net emotional tone (either positive or negative) for each sentence throughout the course of a speech, and the other is of whether the sentence is likely to be seen as inclusive or exclusive based on pronoun use.

Whereas George’s speech starts off negative, with the bad news first about it being a grave hour, things are bad and war is here, he gradually becomes more positive. By contrast, Chamberlain’s speech starts with some hope, hope that war could still be avoided, and is overall positive – despite the reality perhaps?

Pronoun use is the other thing that interested me, mainly because even before I was interested in its study Chamberlain’s “me, me, me” of the speech struck me. He laments how Hitler has snubbed him by invading Poland and that it’s a “bitter blow” to Chamberlain that this happened (to say nothing of the Poles).

By contrast the king’s speech starts with personal use of “I”, more as to introduce himself as ‘he’ sends ‘his’ message, but it is very much including his listeners. It ends that “we shall prevail”. Notice that this is an active sentence, while Chamberlain ended very similarly with “an against them I am certain that the right will prevail”. He is certain, but who is ‘the right’, something he mentions earlier in the speech but it is ill-defined and passive.

See how Chamberlain continues to focus on himself to the end, and ends very negatively and not reassuringly – the penultimate clause is “we shall be fighting against – brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution”, while the king alludes to this with “sacrifice” but it is also about “one and all” being “faithful”, much more positive terms. The king invoke’s God’s blessing (which LIWC being a machine can’t really spot, as the king refers to the divine He, which LIWC puts as third-person).

The king’s speech also has a flow to it, a rise and fall, much like stories are seen best to flow up and down, success and failure, and not be monotone in their positivity or negativity.

Let’s not forget that the king’s speech is shorter, and while both use similar length sentences, George uses shorter words. Chamberlain dwells slightly more on the past and present, while George talks of the home and other homely, comforting things.

Overall though I can see why the king’s speech did keep us enraptured at the cinema (and now DVD, I really should have thought of analysing this at the time it came out). He had the common touch, he spoke to others as one of them, one of us, and did not complain to the audience about how he felt but put himself with his audience, and while admitting the dangers, also offered reassurance.

Other bits

Of course this machine based analysis defeats the whole point of the film – that it is not just the words themselves but the delivery of them. Had George stuttered like he did at the start of the film then this analysis would be useless. As it is both the king and Chamberlain delivered their speeches at a similar pace. By contrast Hitler, who is briefly shown gesticulating in the above clips, is another example of how delivery alters reception, where his speeches were said to hypnotise an audience.

The film makers also set George up as a sympathetic protagonist so there is a bias towards liking him and his speech – Chamberlain’s speech is curtailed in the film while the whole of George’s is not just shown but presented as the climax with uplifting music. It would also be good to know how people remembered it at the time.

So I ask you for two things. One is to vote on which speech you preferred, and that if you do use the spreadsheet data to let me know if you draw a different conclusion.

[poll id=”2″]