Every spring, the residents of Washington, D.C. are entranced by the arrival of the famous cherry blossoms, which bring beauty and happiness to the city. The annual spectacle that is the Conservative Political Action Conference is kind of the opposite. The movement’s heavy hitters—Gingrich! Romney! Coulter! Palin! Michelle Duggar, star of TLC’s “19 Kids & Counting”!—come to speak before excited crowds of freedom-lovers who hang on to their every word, listening for the person who best channels their outrage and who can lead them to victory over the hated Barack Obama this fall. How can CPAC’s speakers guarantee big applause lines?
A 1986 study in the American Journal of Sociology suggests that when it comes to winning over audiences, political speakers need to realize that having the right message isn’t enough. Audiences, the study argues, respond strongly to structure as well as content, and their applause depends on whether the message follows a familiar pattern with a clear ending—leading to a moment when the audience’s clapping is obviously appropriate. And by the authors’ analysis of a series of British political speeches, that rule seems to hold true regardless of the type of speaker or the political party. Statements that employed familiar rhetorical devices were “between two and eight times as likely to be applauded as those that did not.” The listen for CPAC speakers is clear: When delivering your clichés, deliver them in a cliché way!