Ever get the feeling that you’re being spoken to like you’re a child when listening to a speech from President Obama?
You may be onto something.
Except that the same goes for former Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and so forth. All the way down to the 1940s, which is about when presidential speeches began plummeting to a sixth grade level.
According to a piece in Vocativ and a subsequent story by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, the complexity of presidential speeches has plummeted since the days of George Washington. The main reasoning: More voters to appeal to, so speeches must be understood by everyone. Other reasoning involves the notion that a speech that is difficult to understand could leave us wanting to gong the person off the stage.
The test used to come to this conclusion is called the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, which measures syllables and words per sentence, not how inspired you feel after listening to it.
Vocativ had Jeff Shesol, a historian and speechwriter for Bill Clinton analyze their findings that stemmed from crunching some 600 speeches. A finding that may surprise you? George W. Bush was not as dumb as voters may have thought. At least no more than Obama.
Vocativ: “I don’t see a huge discrepancy here. I think President Obama, no more or less than President Bush, tries to pack a lot of nuance and subtext into language that is as plain and straightforward as possible. While President Bush was often inarticulate off the cuff, Bush’s speeches were underestimated. ”
An Atlantic excerpt: “The most memorable lines in modern rhetoric — “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”; “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”; — are remembered precisely because they’re simple enough to understand, memorize, and talk about. Practically every modern sage of language — George Orwell, Steven Pinker, William Safire, Strunk & White — advises non-fiction writers to express themselves with simple language.”
The Atlantic story takes you through George Washington’s first inaugural address. It’s torturous. Thankfully the reporter provides translations.