The Sound of Political Soundbites

by Vincent Meelberg

Soundbites. That is what contemporary politics seems to revolve around.
If a politician is not able to convey his or her message within a single,
catchy phrase, the public is not interested in what this politician has to say.
At least, that is what journalists seem to believe. Political messages need to
fit the headlines of newspapers and, perhaps even more importantly, fake or
real news websites.


Interestingly, it is not just journalism that is seduced by the power of
soundbites. Increasingly, politicians themselves make sure that their message
can be summarised in a single catchphrase. The latest example is the manner in
which British Prime
Minister Theresa May tries to “sell” Brexit
. Through soundbites such as “Brexit Means
Brexit” and “Now Is the Time” May tries to convince the public
that, even though she did not support Brexit before she became Prime Minister,
she now fully endorses it and will make sure that Brexit will happen.

But of course the grandmaster of soundbites is Donald Trump. During the
course of his campaign that lead to his presidency, he came up with a number
of controversial soundbites
that were eagerly quoted by news
channels such as CNN and of course Fox News, usually followed by showing the
original footage in which Trump is uttering these phrases. And it is crucial
for the effectiveness of these soundbites that they can be heard, rather than
merely read, because the success of these soundbites is not just determined by
their meaning, but also by the way they sound when spoken by Trump.

It is the previous president of the United States, Barack Obama, who is praised for
his rhetorical qualities
. The way Obama used rhythm and
timing in his speeches gave them an almost musical quality that contributed to
their persuasive power. Who can resist chanting along “Yes we can!”
with his famous speech which helped him win the 2008
presidential elections? And while it cannot be said that Trump’s speeches have
any musical qualities, they are still seductive from a sonic point of view.

Sound is affective. It has a profound influence in the way we experience
events, environments, or interactions people. Furthermore, the way a sentence
is uttered, which tone of voice is used, influences the way we
interpret its contents
. Trump’s voice is affective as well. His voice
is often imitated in order to
create a comical effect
, but we should not underestimate its power to
convince. Perhaps it is exactly because his voice almost sounds like a
caricature that people believe what he is saying. His soundbites are
entertaining because they have a comical overtone. Not because of the contents
of the soundbites, but because of the way they sound. And because they sound
entertaining, some may have been persuaded to ultimately vote for him. People
want change, and he sure does sound differently from other politicians. Many
did not take Trump seriously, in part because he sounds like a caricature, but
recent history has taught us that we should not be fooled by the tone of a
political voice.