Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Speech Test Story

Somewhere in the late 1990s....I got introduced to the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test.  Microsoft in some early version of Word....actually had the readability test as part of their package.  I admit....from the two hundred folks in my organization.....I was probably only among two or three people who knew of the software test and it's implications.

Flesch-Kincaid works this wrote a page or two (or forty pages) of a speech or paper.  The paper measures the wording....from 3rd grade level of high school.....all the way to graduate school at some university.

It's supposed to help you reach your audience.  If you know that your audience needs a speech geared for lower-intelligent folks...say 10th-grade education....then you can build a speech to that degree, and measure it in the end to be certain of the standard desired.

It's a handy product if you give speeches....write white-papers....develop research projects....or putting together an entire book.

So I noticed today....someone finally took Flesch-Kincaid and applied it to Presidential speeches given since the late 1700s to the present.  It probably took at least a year to dig up the various speeches, and run them through the application.

What they tend to find is interesting.

Most speeches written in the 1800-period....were mostly at the college-level of understanding.  Washington, Adams, and Jefferson wrote comprehensive speeches.....that probably were a bit more difficult than common man of America could take and grasp.  The thing is.....they were educated at a certain level, and most of the people they came into contact with.....were of the same level of education.  Most of the speeches?  They were heard by these same individuals.

From 1850 to 1875....things started to change.  Presidential speeches were now being drafted and given....spreading from college-level on down to the seventh-grade level.

From 1925 to 1950....there were no more of the college-graduate level speeches.  About ninety percent of the speeches given in this period by Presidents....were of the 12th grade of high school on down to the eighth grade.

Since 1975.....there's not been a single Presidential speech developed that went past the 12th grade of high school.  The majority fit for eighth and ninth grade writing skills.

President Obama's noted speeches?  They generally fit into the seventh grade to the tenth grade.

A odd fact or two from this study?  The Gettysburg Speech drafted and given by Lincoln.....was noted at the eleventh-grade level. The poor notes given to George Bush's speeches?  Well....they generally measure up to the same level given by President Obama.  No worse.

What does all this say about our national character and leadership?  We've developed the remarkable ability to write marginal speeches that get the point across to people with limited or sparse education.  We want a leader who seems to think like like us.....and educated like us.  He may be fake to some degree....walking around with a Master's Degree in law....but he's hired enough people to draft marginal speeches for our entertainment.

Fixing this or cleaning it up?  Forget about it.  I doubt if the public would be happy with a George Washington-type character today showing up and giving a humble speech which was drafted at the college level.  Neither would the public likely stand and vote for a guy like Abraham Lincoln.  We've gotten use to gimmick presidents, and it's the current trend.  For better or worse, this is the direction we are going.

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