Lend Me Your Eyes
Eric J. Ostermeier — Ph.D., University of Minnesota, Department of Political Science, 2006; J.D., The University of Michigan Law School, 1995; Research Associate at the Humphrey School’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance — would like you to know that Barack Obama is dumbing down:
“My Message is Simple”: Obama’s SOTU Written at 8th Grade Level for Third Straight Year
Obama’s SOTU addresses have the lowest average Flesch-Kincaid score of any modern president; Obama owns three of the six lowest-scoring addresses since FDR
For the third consecutive State of the Union Address, Barack Obama spoke in clear, plain terms.
And for the third straight Address, the President’s speech was written at an eighth-grade level.
In Obama’s own words: “My message is simple.”
But was it too simplistic?
A Smart Politics study of the 70 orally delivered State of the Union Addresses since 1934 finds the text of Obama’s 2012 speech to have tallied the third lowest score on the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, at an 8.4 grade level.
We thought Flesch-Kincaid was the condition that the Heimlich Maneuver resolves, but let’s set that aside.
Instead, we’d like to ask Dr. Eric a simple question: Have you ever written for radio?
We have. News. And coming from a print background, it was a, um, ear-opener.
The first thing you learn: Listeners can’t re-read your text.
The second thing you learn: Clauses kill.
Radio — like speaking — is a much more direct medium than print. At the time, we called it “leading the listener by the hand”: By the time you’ve reached the sixth sentence, the first sentence is far in the past. If you’re going to be effective — if you’re going to get your point across — you need to be simple and direct. You don’t quite need to speak in bullet points, but you need to be as clear.
Actually, it helps to write that way, too. Unless you’re a novelist.
Instead, Dr. Eric prefers to rate the State of the Union speech against this:
The Flesch-Kincaid test is designed to assess the readability level of written text, with a formula that translates the score to a U.S. grade level. Longer sentences and sentences utilizing words with more syllables produce higher scores. Shorter sentences and sentences incorporating more monosyllabic words yield lower scores.
By that metric, we would say that the Flesch-Kincaid test measures the unnecessary complexity of a piece of writing. It has nothing to do with “grade level”, and everything to do with pomposity.
But even if we grant the point, Dr. Eric is still measuring a speech written to be heard against something written to be read. Which means that despite his Ph.D./J.D./HHH-CSPG, Eric J. Ostermeier doesn’t know shit.