Presidential rhetoric's grade school slide

For my senior thesis, I decided to take what I've learned and explore the relationship between the rise of social media and presidential rhetoric.

In my six months working here as an intern, I have begun to learn how the increasing ubiquity of social media is affecting companies and their strategies. For my senior thesis, I decided to take what I've learned and explore the relationship between the rise of social media and presidential rhetoric.

For the first time in history, all those who hope to win the 2012 presidential election have a blog, YouTube channel, Twitter handle, website, and Facebook page (at least). The candidates understand that effective communication to the widest possible audience—i.e., the successful integration of social media into campaign strategy—is necessary to winning the election.

Now more than ever, the press has less influence as social media outlets allow those running for office to circumvent the media and reach their audience directly while maintaining complete control over the message.

But the payoff comes with a price. The comprehension level of every presidential inaugural address prior to 1900 is at or above a 12th grade level. Since then, as a general trend, features in presidential rhetoric such as sentence length and complexity, grade level comprehension, and word difficulty have been tirelessly simplified due to the widening audience reached by media. Each new medium pressures the speaker to present a message palatable to citizens of all ages, ethnicities, education levels, religions, and other traits.

Franklin D. Roosevelt is the first president with the opportunity to use some of the modern day media we take for granted, namely the radio, as a tool to communicate his platform directly to the country. His "fireside chats" are frequently praised as a communications coup. Tellingly, FDR's speeches dropped a grade level with each address, beginning at 10th and ending at 8th. Obama's “Yes We Can” speech reaches a 7.1 grade level. George H. W. Bush's inaugural address scored the lowest in history, with a 6.1 grade level comprehension.

Linguistic complexity is not always necessary to communicate complex ideas; sometimes punchier speeches are written so to compel listeners emotionally and help the speaker appear relatable. But it is interesting to question at what point consequential ideas can no longer be communicated efficiently. When does an effective message become a mere applause-rendering platitude?

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