KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
It sounds like a politician's dream - a machine that can tell you exactly what to say to change a voter's mind. We're going to meet a political scientist now who's working to make that dream a reality. NPR's Scott Detrow tells us how it started.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Well, Nick Beauchamp had a question. How exactly do you come up with a really persuasive argument?
NICK BEAUCHAMP: When you think about, like, advertising, you think, well, where does an advertisement come from? And your mind goes to, like, "Mad Men" or something. You think of, you know, a bunch of men and women sitting on an orange couch, smoking weed, and, like, you know, the ideas burble to the top of their heads.
DETROW: Of course, advertising and political communications have gotten a bit more technical and analytical since Don Draper's day. But Beauchamp, a professor at Northeastern University, wanted instant objective analysis. What words work? So he wrote a program that generates paragraphs centered around key terms.
He took a bunch of text from a pro-Obamacare website and dropped it into his algorithm. The algorithm then took that text and mixed and matched it to form short paragraphs. Volunteers read those paragraphs and rated their persuasiveness.
BEAUCHAMP: And then it uses the feedback from that to go back and choose a different distribution of topics that hopefully will produce, in this case, better approval of Obamacare.
DETROW: Topics that kept getting positive results got higher scores. Within an hour and a half, a handful of topics stood out as especially persuasive, sentences like...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BARACK OBAMA: Under this plan, it will be against the law for insurance companies to deny you coverage because of a preexisting condition.
DETROW: Other terms that worked included employee, employer and business. Beauchamp says the algorithm also singled out topics that made people feel more negative than positive about the law.
BEAUCHAMP: State and federal relationships and sort of rights and laws.
DETROW: So could a program like this replace speechwriters? Vinca LaFleur isn't really worried she'll be forced into early retirement. She's a professional speechwriter who used to work for President Bill Clinton. LaFleur says the program's findings are kind of just speechwriting 101. Find a topic that relates to your audience.
VINCA LAFLEUR: We're employees and employers. You know, we have preexisting conditions. That's very relatable and resonant and ultimately persuasive in a way that something, you know, more technical or abstract like state and federal rights might not be.
DETROW: But a lot of people aren't too thrilled about the general idea of a new tool that makes it easier for politicians to sharpen their talking points. Barton Swaim is kind of a recovering speechwriter. He recently wrote a book about his time working for former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.
BARTON SWAIM: I think when politicians obsess too much about messaging, the story of their obsession with messaging becomes the story, and so it's counterproductive.
DETROW: In fact, Swaim's time writing speeches left him convinced, more than anything, that words in a speech don't do much to convince people one way or another.
SWAIM: I just don't think that's true. I think people are much more complicated than that. A lot depends on context, who's saying it, how it's said, the history of the person saying it, you know, the record.
DETROW: Still, political campaigns across the country will spend the next year betting hundreds of millions of dollars that messages do matter. And while it may not be refined enough to be used during this election, Beauchamp new tool could give future candidates a faster way to make their messages even more persuasive. Scott Detrow, NPR News.
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