It analyzes the reading level to which the speech was given and then compares it to the levels of other State of the Union addresses. Graphing these ratings shows a long, downward trend in the “linguistic standards of presidential addresses.” While the speech’s position on the Y-axis indicates its reading level, the size of the circle is indicative of the number of words in the address.
On average, President Barack Obama ranks in second at the lower end of reading levels of the presidential speeches at 9.2, according to the Flesch-Kincaid readability test used by The Guardian. George H.W. Bush had the lowest average level at 8.6 and James Madison was highest with 26.1. In last night’s speech though, Obama’s 6,501 words were rated at a reading level of 10.2.
See the difference between Obama’s average sentence and Madison’s average sentence:
- Barack Obama: And if there’s one thing that has unified Democrats and Republicans, it’s that we all hated the bank bailout.
- James Madison: In reviewing the scenes through which it has been attained we can rejoice in the proofs given that our political institutions, founded in human rights and framed for their preservation, are equal to the severest trials of war, as well adapted to the ordinary periods of repose.
This is not to say that speaking or writing to a lower reading level is necessarily bad. Some might argue that a lower reading level ensures that the content is being delivered in a manner that is understandable to more people.
Be sure to play around with The Guardian’s interactive infographic for more information about past presidents and the reading level to which their speeches were given.
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