The Long Term Impact Of The Internet On The Words We Use
(WARNING: The following post includes a discussion of past presidents and a major shift in their messaging styles. There is not a single reference to politics here, and that’s by design. This is an observation of a changing trend in communication that has impacted all of us.
If it is in your nature to make political comments and begin endless debates about said topic, please move on. Facebook would love to hear from you.
If instead you are willing to comment on the communication ideas in this post, please join in. This is an important issue which affects how we communicate as leaders, speakers, and sales professionals).
Presidents’ Change Of Communication Style
At what grade level do you think the President of the United States has communicated at in order to connect with his constituents?
According to the the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, the last six presidents from the first George Bush to Joe Biden, have presented State of the Union addresses at around an eight-grade level. That is two to three grades lower than their predecessors.
If you’re not familiar with Flesch-Kincaid, it is a test which evaluates the ease of understanding and engaging in a piece of text.
So why have the last five Presidents Flesch-Kincaid scores dropped two or more grade levels?
Is it because of their education levels?
No. Most of them were Ivy-League educated.
Is it the comprehension of the population?
As tempting as it might be for some to answer in the affirmative, most research shows that the literacy rate has stayed constant since the early 1990’s.
What then is the reason?
During the third year of George Bush’s presidency, on August 6, 1991, a major shift occurred around the world. It wasn’t highly publicized at the time, but it was one of the most profound changes in human history.
That was the day the world wide web became publicly available. People around the globe gained access to information previously available only in textbooks, encyclopedias, or books on library shelves.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the readability scores of President Bush and subsequent presidents’ speeches dropped when this occurred. With access to the internet, the doors were opened to an avalanche of information.
With hindsight, we can see that an overabundance of data, facts, and figures can have a negative impact on us. Especially when the information is contradictory.
In order to effectively connect with their constituents, and fight through all of the information “noise” politicians simplified (NOT dumbed-down) their messages.
It’s A Matter Of Survival
As author Donald Miller points out in his book Building A Story Brand, the human brain has two main functions:
2. Conserve calories
When anyone, not just politicians, speak with highbrow or intellectual language, they’re making audience members burn more calories. Those people who speak in simplified language help their listeners create instant mental images and greater clarity of their topic.
A side benefit of this communication style is that the speaker is considered to be more likable, approachable, and more like the listener.
The most effective communicators in our information-laden world speak in language that bypasses the cerebral part of our brains and connects with the emotional portion. They paint mental pictures that tap into listeners feelings and emotions. This is what typically stirs people to take action. The most effective leaders inspire people to act.
When you speak and communicate with others, are you using language that appeals to the intellectual part of your listeners brain, or are you connecting with their emotions?
If you want to create a bond and inspire people, you might need to drop your language a couple of grade levels. It’s worked for our last few presidents, it can work for you, too.
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