A study on credibility in political communication analyses Ana Botella’s “relaxing cup”

Researchers at the Indiana University and Pompeu Fabra University have released a study on prosody and credibility in political communication. Ana Botella’s speech introducing Madrid as a candidate city for the Olympic Games was analysed, along with those of her Turkish and Japanese counterparts. The results show that the Mayor of Madrid paid little attention to key aspects of prosody, with artificial and exaggerated tone, intensity and rhythm, giving rise to an unnatural speech. The study was presented at the annual congress of the International Communication Association, held in the USA in May.

Ana Botella’s infamous speech at the IOC ceremony was widely lampooned in the media. Since then, phrases like “a relaxing cup of café con leche” have been on everyone’s lips. Even Time magazine placed the Mayor in 70th place in its ranking of Mayor’s gaffes, citing in particular her “battle with English”.

But what was the reason for this battle with English and how was the speech received? These are the questions that researchers Emma Rodero, a lecturer on the Postgraduate Course in Voiceover and Public Communication at UPF-IDEC, and Lluís Mas, set out to answer in this study. The results could be significant in that the manner in which a politician expresses him or herself is a decisive factor in the perception of credibility on the part of the electorate.

In order to answer these questions, the researchers looked at discourse prosody in three politicians and 110 individuals of 27 different nationalities (none coming from the countries involved in the study, and all Anglophone), evaluating the credibility of the three politicians according to how they expressed themselves. Specifically, they were analysing how prosody (intonations, intensity and rhythm) was used.

The results of the research showed how different modes of expression affect credibility. Ali Babacan, the Turkish politician, came across as the most believable and the best received. This is because his speech combined sufficient intensity with a moderate tone and a lively pace, with brief, regular pauses. This resulted in a natural, fluid speech. On the other hand, the speech given by the Japanese representative Naoki Inose was highly contaminated by his maternal language. This contamination in combination with monotone intonation and too many long pauses meant that his speech was perceived as boring. Finally, Ana Botella, the mayor of Madrid made a brave attempt, but her efforts to imitate the English accent resulted in an excessively exaggerated, theatrical delivery that was inappropriate for the context. The politician emphasized some parts of the speech unnecessarily, using a high pitch and an extremely emphatic intonation, with irregular changes in intensity. These three factors taken together made her sound infantile, as though she were speaking to children. The resulting artificiality meant that she was not perceived as credible, which is a key aspect of effective political communication. Despite this, she was not the worst speaker; the Japanese Mayor was awarded this dubious award.