August 2, 2013

A bizarre method of measuring speaking skills

So let me get this straight: A member of Congress who speaks at a grade level that most Americans can understand, using shorter sentences and shorter words, gets the lowest rating of speaking skills in all of Congress?

How about we give this guy the HIGHEST score for not making his speeches convoluted, obscure and overly complicated?

In a study done last year by the Sunlight Foundation, the grade levels of 20 years of congressional speeches were analyzed.

From NPR:

"Every word members of Congress say on the floor of the House or Senate is documented in the Congressional Record. The Sunlight Foundation took the entire Congressional Record dating back to the 1990s and plugged it into a searchable database.

Lee Drutman, a political scientist at Sunlight, took all those speeches and ran them through an algorithm to determine the grade level of congressional discourse.

'We just kind of did it for fun, and I was kind of shocked when I plotted that data and I saw that, oh my God, there's been a real drop-off in the last several years,' he says.

In 2005, Congress spoke at an 11.5 grade level on the Flesch-Kincaid scale. Now, it's 10.6. In other words, Congress dropped from talking like juniors to talking like sophomores.

Flesch-Kincaid equates higher grade levels with longer sentences and words with more syllables."

From The Gazette (I have to point out here the way "speeches" is spelled in that URL):

"'Drutman told The Gazette that the last three elections have been 'wave' elections that have brought large numbers of new members from either party, so Congress has seen an influx in recent years of younger, less-experienced speakers who tend to have lower grade-level scores.

Meanwhile, he said more senior members of Congress have likely been influenced by the rise of social media, such as Twitter and YouTube, in which brevity is necessary.

'It’s the rise of Congress by talking points,' Drutman said. 'On one hand, it’s the dumbing-down of Congress. On the other hand, it shows Congress is becoming more plain-spoken.'"

South Carolina Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney's score was the lowest of all members of Congress, due to his short sentences and short words.

"'Gosh, I guess I should be disappointed that I'm not using my higher education to better use, but, oh well,' Mulvaney says. 'I hope people don't take it as a substitute for lack of intellect, but small words can be just as powerful as big words sometimes....

'I was trained to write in a clear and concise fashion, and you didn't use big words if small words would do,' he says. 'Certainly I'm not trying to dumb down the message by any stretch of the imagination.'"

Here's an excerpt from a speech given by Congressman Rob Woodall, at the 8.01 grade level (second lowest grade level on the floor of Congress):

"What do they say about socialism, Mr. Speaker? It's a great plan until you run out of other people's money. Guess what? We've run out of other people's money. I just want to show you a chart."

Wouldn't you rather have your representatives speaking to you in plain English, focusing on your understanding of the issues, rather than making complicated statements that you need a dictionary to understand -- and only serve to show off someone's enormous vocabulary?

I love that Congressman Mulvaney had the sense of humor to release this statement after the scores came out:

"In an analytical algorithmic system, such as the Flesch-Kincaid Test employed by the Sunlight Foundation in the current study and as originally reported by NPR, which attempts to establish a correlation between intellect and such simplistic metrics as length of sentence and polysyllabic word choice, it should not strike one as unanticipated that it is the person who has a thesaurus within easy reach, is afforded an unlimited supply of commas, possesses a surplusage of time, and is somehow afforded unfettered access to a microphone, who invariably will be acknowledged as the smartest person in the room."

Read the full article here.

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