I’m a sucker for a good speech.
A few weeks ago we were treated to (or depending on your perspective, punished with) several days of political speeches, written by some of the best speechwriters in the country today. And while we built wordle “speech clouds” similar to what others did to highlight the candidates’ themes, in truth I don’t think we gleaned much from those clouds this year. Sure, Governor Romney mentioned “business” a lot more than President Obama, while the president used the word “hope” more than the governor, but that’s not terribly insightful.
I was struck by something else. On the whole, the most prominent speeches from Charlotte were more complex than the most prominent speeches from Tampa. I used this online utility to assess the readability and complexity of several of the speeches.
The University of Minnesota picked up on the most stark contrast. I thought Ann Romney’s speech was quite good, but if she sounded like she was talking to a sixth grader, that’s because she was – her speech was written for a sixth-grade reading level according to the Flesch-Kincaid test. Her counterpart, First Lady Michelle Obama, gave one of the most (if not the most sophisticated speeches at either convention) – written above a 12th grade level. Further, a college sophomore would have some trouble understanding all of it on the first read.
This was a fairly consistent theme from both conventions. Governor Romney’s speech? Not quite 8th grade. President Obama’s? Nearly 10th grade. President Clinton’s speech? Over 10th grade as prepared, and then he added quite a bit to it. Clint Eastwood’s, ummm… remarks? Fifth grade. There were a handful of “outliers,” however: The keynote addresses, given by San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, were very similar – both between 7th and 8th grade, with Mayor Castro’s only slightly more advanced. Vice President Biden gave a spirited address, written just above 7th grade level, while Congressman Ryan’s feisty speech was written at a half a reading level higher, almost 8th grade. Secretary Condoleezza Rice gave an outstanding speech at the GOP convention written just above 11th grade level.
Of course, speeches are meant to be heard, not read – and once a word is spoken, it’s in the past. So I looked at other assessments, such as the Gunning-Fog index, which tells you the amount of formal education someone would need to easily understand text on the first reading. Again, it’s not listening, but maybe a somewhat better indicator of the complexity of a speech – and it also suggests the Democrats gave significantly more sophisticated speeches. (A good rule of thumb for the results above would be to add slightly more than two reading levels to each speech.) I also watched the speeches repeatedly (you can find all of them on the YouTube Politics Channel) to see how the written text fit the speaker and how often the speaker deviated from prepared remarks.
Written complexity has a significant bearing on the quality and impact of a speech. Shorter sentences and smaller words are more accessible to larger audiences. They’re sometimes a better fit when the speaker isn’t as well known, like Mrs. Romney. Her job was to widen her husband’s appeal, and the speech reflected that. Less complex speeches are also often safer – this convention was really Romney’s first (and possibly only) chance to speak directly to many voters without interruption, despite the incessant horse-race coverage from the beltway media. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that if you get too simple the result can be an incoherent argument with an empty chair.
Larger words and longer sentences can project eloquence, confidence and authority – if they fit the rhythm and cadence of an experienced, talented speaker. We now know President Clinton essentially did this on the fly. Mrs. Obama and Secretary Rice really distinguished themselves in this regard as well.
Overall, the speeches tried to observe the first rule of speechwriting: know your audience. Looking at the content and the complexity of the speeches, the GOP tried to appeal to a broader audience that didn’t know Governor Romney intimately. The Democrats spoke to people who voted for the president last time but have weathered a difficult four years. Both were smart strategies. Polls suggest the Democrats had a better convention than the Republicans – we will see if the conventions remain relevant in November.