March 24, 2008

The Power of Simple Words -- The Obama Speech

While everyone is going ga-ga over Barak Obama's race speech, few have really taken apart the speech as a lesson for aspiring writers and public speakers.

Over and over again we journalism professors preach the values of the simple declarative sentence and the use us simple but elegant words.

But we run up against the academic belief that simple words means simple minds.

I tell my students over and over that the use of multiple syllabic words is more an effort to impress than to communicate.

And a journalist's main job is to communicate.

So while everyone was talking about what Obama said and how impressive the speech was, I looked at the actual words.
  • The speech was 4,930 words long.
  • Of those words only 370 were more than two syllables. (Actually the number I had was 363, but I could have missed a couple. So I rounded up.)
  • That means that 92.5 percent of the words Obama used in his speech were two syllables or less.
  • The average length of each word was 4.6 letters. (Kind of hard to get too many syllables out of that.)
  • The readability grade level for the speech (calculation done by MS WORD) was 10.5.
So to summarize:
  • Commentators of every political stripe call the Obama speech a masterpiece.
  • The speech was directed at a person with a second year high school education.
  • The average word was no longer than 5 letters.
  • Only 7.5 percent of the words in the speech were more than two syllables.
Now, explain to me again how using multi-syllabic words communicates better.

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