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New York Magazine: Textbook Obama

Flash from the Past ( September 21, 2009) by Paul Bonanos

Which predecessor does his rhetoric most nearly echo? The data don’t lie: It’s Ronald Reagan.

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On Tuesday, President Obama spoke to schoolchildren; on Wednesday, to Congress. The easy punch line (same grade level, guys?) raises a real question: How does this president, whose comments on health care in particular had been criticized for lacking a clear take-home message, pitch his language? Does he strategically streamline his explanations for different audiences? To find out, we called upon science, in the form of Paul J. J. Payack, “president and chief word analyst” at an Austin, Texas, trend-watching outfit called the Global Language Monitor.

What Payack found when Obama’s speeches bubbled through his software was that the president didn’t treat Congress like a bunch of kids. His health-care speech clocks in at 9.0, indicating a ninth-grade reading level; the classroom speech, at 6.6. Those two figures more or less bookend the range for contemporary oration. Both Presidents Bush tended to fall around grade 7, as did Obama’s “Yes, We Can” speech. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” comes in at 8.8.

There’s plenty of room for sophisticated ideas at that level. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is sixth-grade material. So is The Hobbit. The Gettysburg Address rates a 9.1. That’s low for the nineteenth century, when florid oratory was in vogue—the Lincoln-Douglas debates took place at an eleventh-grade level, rarely heard today. “You can imagine how they’d talk—three, four hours long,” Payack says. “It really changed with the advent of radio.”

Nor is ninth-grade language too tough for a mainstream audience. Payack says that Ronald Reagan, the master of folksy explanation, is Obama’s closest match among recent presidents, with speeches that usually come in around 9 or 10. “The word was that he spoke in sound bites, but they’re very well-crafted sound bites.” The two presidents may differ in affect, content, and approach—Obama sometimes seems to develop his ideas through the very process of turning them into oratory, whereas Reagan more or less only had one idea—but not in linguistic complexity. Indeed, Obama has often expressed admiration for the Gipper’s ability to frame issues.

Payack explains that his proprietary algorithm is a variant of the standard Flesch Reading Ease Test, which is performed on many textbooks and educational materials: “It analyzes words per sentence, syllables per word, things of that nature. The theory is that the more complex the structure, the more syllables per word, the more difficult it is to understand.” Polysyllabicism and subclauses add complexity, and skew the score toward older readers. “To reach the greatest number of people, to communicate most crisply, to make sure your idea moves from your mind to someone else’s, you should speak in short sentences.” (Representative Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” achieves a prekindergarten rating.) For comparison, a Maureen Dowd column from last week was a 10.8, a Paul Krugman piece was a 12.5, and the story you’re reading now has a Flesch score of ninth grade.

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Language mavens exchange words over Obama’s speech

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • Nearly 2,700 words with little jargon
  • People understand spoken and written word differently
  • Payack gives Obama “Solid B”

(CNN) — Language experts weighed in Thursday after poring over the nearly 2,700 words of President Obama’s Oval Office speech on the Gulf oil disaster.

It was straightforward and easy to understand,” said Ron Yaros, assistant professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, referring to the explanations of the crisis and its possible solutions. He divided the speech into 1,200 “idea units,” each of which represents a point the president was trying to make.

He then looked at how many of those idea units contained jargon — unexplained terms that the average person might not recognize — and found none in the 65 idea units that explained the problem.

Of the 417 idea units that discussed what Obama planned to do, “I found only one idea unit that probably would be potentially confusing to a nonexpert. That was the term ‘relief well.’ He never explained that.”

BP is digging a relief well that is expected to intersect with the blown-out well in August. At that point, BP plans to pump heavy drilling fluid into the runaway well, ending the flow.

If you look at the entire speech, and you look at the amount of jargon, it came out to 1.5 percent,” he said.

iReporter:Obama’s speech too fuzzy on details

But Obama’s speech may have gone over the heads of many in his audience, according to an analysis of the 18-minute talk released Wednesday by Paul J.J. Payack, president of Global Language Monitor.

Tuesday night’s speech from the Oval Office of the White House was written to a 9.8 grade level, said Payack, who gave Obama a “solid B.” His Austin, Texas-based company analyzes and catalogues trends in word usage and word choice and their impact on culture.

He singled out this sentence from Obama as unfortunate: “That is why just after the rig sank, I assembled a team of our nation’s best scientists and engineers to tackle this challenge — a team led by Dr. Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and our nation’s secretary of energy.”

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See “The Colbert Report’s”  Send-up of GLM’s Oval Office Analysis

A little less professorial, less academic and more ordinary,” Payack recommended. “That’s the type of phraseology that makes you [appear] aloof and out of touch.”

Yaros disagreed, supporting the quality of the president’s explanation for spelling out the efforts under way, even if they have not succeeded in ending the flow.

He’s just trying to be transparent,” Yaros said. “We can’t cure cancer, but I’m comforted to know that the best researchers in the nation are devoted to finding a cure.”

Payack found these three sentences insensitive: “Already, this oil spill is the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced. And unlike an earthquake or a hurricane, it is not a single event that does its damage in a matter of minutes or days. The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years.”

You shouldn’t be saying that in Katrina-land,” said Payack, referring to the 2005 hurricane that devastated the Gulf Coast. “New Orleans lost a third of its population [to evacuees who did not return]; it’s still recovering.”

But he praised Obama’s phrase “oil began spewing” as active and graphic.

Obama’s nearly 10th-grade-level rating was the highest of any of his major speeches and well above the grade 7.4 of his 2008 “Yes, we can” victory speech, which many consider his best effort, Payack said.

The scores indicate that this was not Obama at his best, especially when attempting to make an emotional connection to the American people,” he added.

Though the president used slightly less than four sentences per paragraph, his 19.8 words per sentence “added some difficulty for his target audience,” Payack said.

Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, was unimpressed with Payack’s criticism of the sentence length.

I think we can all agree that those are shockingly long professor-style sentences for a president to be using, especially in addressing the nation after a disaster,” Liberman wrote on his blog.

Why, they were almost as long as the ones that President George W. Bush, that notorious pointy-headed intellectual, used in his 9/15/2005 speech to the nation about Hurricane Katrina, where I count 3,283 words in 140 sentences, for an average of 23.45 words per sentence! And we all remember how upset the press corps got about the professorial character of that speech!”

Yaros challenged the value of Payack’s analysis. “There’s a tremendous amount of difference between analyzing the written word and interpreting the spoken word,” said Yaros, a former science reporter who studies how to make complex topics understandable.

Payack acknowledged Thursday in a telephone interview that his analysis is indeed based on a written version of the speech, but said that does not necessarily render it invalid. “With the internet, probably as many people read the transcript as heard it,” he said. “To think it’s not read and analyzed by tens of thousands of bloggers is looking at the old model.”

Yaros countered that he doesn’t just count words and sentences, but instead measures the audience’s comprehension of news content.

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