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The Pundits Don’t Understand Readability

June 15, 2011

Gateway Pundit – along with a host of others – has taken delight in pointing out that Sarah Palin wrote her emails at an eighth grade level while Obama’s Victory speech comes out at only the seventh grade.  What they don’t seem to understand is that seventh grade is better than eighth.

The problem comes from a misunderstanding of what is important here.  The Flesch-Kincaid test, which is what the people making the comparisons used to reach these conclusions, is a test of the readability of the texts – i.e. the ability of people to understand what is being said.  It is not a test of the intelligence of the writers, it’s a test of their ability to deliver a message that is understandable without forcing the audience to reach for a dictionary or diagram the sentences.  And on this measure, Obama won.

Ask anyone in sales and they will tell you the same thing – simple messages are more effective. People tune out what they have to work to understand.  They find it boring and tend to be suspicious that the speaker or writer is deliberately obfuscating the issues to hide something.  Simple messages are more inspirational, induce more positive responses and even seem truer.

This is not to say that, in general, Palin is a poorer communicator.  It undoubtedly has more to do with the different audiences each both Palin and Obama aimed their messages at.  A public speech is necessarily meant to be heard by a very general audience, while emails are more likely sent to peers.  One is meant to stir emotions – ideally bypassing the more judgemental parts of the brain – while the others were likely to include emails meant solely to provide information to be thought over and discussed.  Essentially, the most we can get from this news is that each is aware of who they are communicating with and how best to make that communication effective.

Just for comparison, the grade level of the above entry – as determined here – is 10.48.


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