Dumb and Dumber: Congress, Language and the Facebook Fiasco

Creating speech honed in to the masses is wrong

     

You’re not imagining things. Congress is dumb and getting dumber. According to the Sunlight Foundation, the median grade level for Congressional proceedings and speeches has dropped nearly a full grade level from eleventh to tenth grade. The result of studying the Congressional Record for the past seven years, the Foundation’s data also suggests that both conservatives and new congressmen are responsible for dumbing the entire legislative body down.

But I don’t know if I buy that when you consider that Republicans own both ends of the scale. For example, Rep. Rick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), speaks at an average grade level of 7.9 while Rep. Dan Lungren (R-C.A.), uses speech consistent with a college senior. What I do find very interesting is that the majority of “sophisticated” speakers are only sophisticated when using prepared notes.

The Sunlight data tells us when the majority of our leaders have to speak extemporaneously — a five dollar word in itself — they appear just as “dumb” as the rest of us.

Maybe this explains why our leaders say so much yet actually communicate so very little.

Take the last 67 presidential addresses for instance. They were given at an average grade level of 10.7.

Meanwhile, all of President Obama’s State of the Union addresses have tallied at a level you’d expect of an eighth grader, according to the University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics.

Dumbing Down the Message

I actually think there is something else at work here. It’s sound bites.

Our leaders are now trained to talk in them because they know that’s what gets them re-elected and what sells in the nightly news. As a result, most politicians can’t put together a string of intelligent sentences even if they wanted to.

Again, is this simply a matter of language? …. Or does it hide a bigger underlying issue?

 Dumb and Dumber: Congress, Language and the Facebook FiascoI suspect it’s a little of both, which is why our leaders can’t get their minds around the global financial crisis, our debt, the eurozone, China or any of half a dozen other important issues facing our world today.

They simply may not understand anything beyond the sound bites or what is needed to pander to their base on either side of the aisle.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh.

Maybe it’s just that Congress isn’t prepared to a) speak without a prompter and b) without properly prepared briefings. Our President certainly doesn’t appear to be.

Making things more readable or understandable isn’t a new concept.

In the 1880s, for instance, sentences had become 54% shorter at 23 words than they were in the Elizabethan era, when the average sentence was 50 words, according to Professor L.A. Sherman.

Today the average sentence length is between 14-20 words. Perhaps cavemen were on to something with a simple “uhhh.” Perhaps these days our politicians would be better served with “duuhh.”

Speaking of which, there may be another explanation here –  “vocabulary frequency.”

Most people would never give this a second thought, but any language is really a series of building blocks. What this suggests is that the use of certain vocabulary and the frequency of its use can be tied to specific levels of intellectual development.

Before computers, educators used to spend significant amounts of time matching students with appropriate reading materials using huge lists of “building block words” that were measured and ranked by how often they appeared.

In early 2000, researchers working for the School Renaissance Institute and Touchstone Applied Science Associates took this a step further. They determined that three variables matter most when it comes to reading ease: words per sentence, the average grade level of the words themselves, and the number of characters per word.

This sounds very obvious, but in reality it’s tremendously difficult to get right, especially for people who must speak and present their thinking to broad audiences.

I can vouch for that from personal experience.

I speak to more than 10,000 investors a year all around the world and have done hundreds of television interviews, many times in foreign languages, which compounds the problems associated with effective communication tremendously.

 
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