Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Presentation Geek: The Inauguration Speech

The inaugural address is a signature moment for a president. While he has other significant addresses – the election night speech and state of the union, for example – the inauguration speech is the one that is most anticipated. How will a new president set the tone for his administration? Will he focus on history? Will he confidently predict the future? Will he have a phrase that will capture our imagination? All ears are turned toward Washington, and we hope to hear something great. On Monday, NPR ran a segment with highlights of inauguration speeches from 1925 to 2005. I was struck by the differences in tone and level of rhetoric. Of course, each president faced different challenges, and each had their own agenda to communicate. But all were trying to address the American public, and hopefully to inspire them.

Several media outlets have commented on the difference in styles between Obama and Bush. There have been comments about having an Author-President, and what that might mean for the content and clarity of the inaugural address. I found the speech to be an interesting blend between ideals and pragmatic considerations. I also thought that the word choice sounded different, and wondered if this meant Obama might be reaching for a different level of conversation. As one media person mentioned “maybe he expects us to come to his level.”

So I thought I’d try a little test. I took the inaugural addresses of Kennedy, Reagan (1st inauguration), Bush 43 (1st inauguration) and Obama, and ran the first 5000 characters through the assessment at
Blue Centauri. This site includes word counts, and assesses against the more common writing indexes:
  • Flesch Reading Ease. This measures the number of words per sentence, and number of syllables per word, and scales against 100 points. The higher the score, the easier the text is to read. Authors are encouraged to shoot for a score between 60-70. A number below 30 indicates an advanced college text.
  • Gunning-Fog Scale. This is similar to the Flesch scale, however it focuses on “Foggy words” – those with more than 3 syllables. Scoring on this system is a scale of 1-20. This score is often used to show how print media target their content. Some comparisons: Fog score of 6 = TV Guides, 8=Reader’s Digest, 10= Time or Newsweek magazine, 11= Wall Street Journal, 15+=Academic papers.
  • Flesch-Kincaid grade level. This algorithm sets expectations for what level of school would be most able to read and understand the content. (Assigned in years, 0-17).

Here are the results:

Of course, these speeches are more than 5000 characters long, but I do think this sample size leads to some interesting comparisons. Obama has the most dense sentences (almost 2x words/sentence compared to Bush). He also has the lowest Reading Ease, although he’s still just outside the target for most authors. Bush has the highest Reading Ease. I found it interesting that Kennedy and Reagan’s content were so close to each other, and fit right in between Bush and Obama. Most importantly, I think the results show the shift in approach between Bush and Obama. We’re moving from a President whose speech was accessible at the 5th grade level, with word choice targeted near Reader’s Digest to a President who set the bar at almost high school levels, and reaches the Wall Street Journal's level for word choice. I will be interested to see if this level of content stays, and how it impacts the public’s opinions of the President.

One side note. During the speech I started thinking about the speechwriters who toiled over those words, trying for the right turn of phrase, hoping the content would be there, and knowing that there would be many many edits before the final delivery. I’ve always wondered about speechwriters – I think it takes a special class of person to be able to write for presentation vs writing for print. It’s also a special class of person who is gratified to hear their words spoken, even though the credit will go to the President, and not to them. Kudos to the speechwriters, whoever you are. Thank you for once again delivering an address that inspires a nation.
[img: orangejack]


Gary Myers said...

"although he’s still just outside the target for most authors"
A speech does need to be 'easier' than a written text. It comes at the speaker's pace, not that of the recipient.
I ran Clinton's through, which came out closer to Obama's on the reading scales. 69.33, 10.54 and 7.96.

Anonymous said...

wow you are a word geek. Cool insight, thanks for sharing!

Sarah T said...

Thanks for sharing. This is also interesting:
I stumbled upon your article while looking for more information on the the current and last administration.

I would like to see what the stats are after considering the entire speech instead of just a sample.

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