Grade levels in public speaking: meaningless

I expect that many people will try to make something of the CNN report that Sarah Palin spoke at a higher grade level than did Joe Biden during their debate.  It certainly lends itself to all kinds of humor and a certain amount of political schadenfreude regarding Biden’s pomposity and conceit regarding his intelligence.  However, this really means much less than it seems:


An analysis carried out by a language monitoring service said Friday that Gov. Sarah Palin spoke at a more than ninth-grade level and Sen. Joseph Biden spoke at a nearly eighth-grade level in Thursday night’s debate between the vice presidential candidates. …

His analysis ranked the candidates’ speech on several other levels, too. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Grade level: Biden, 7.8; Palin, 9.5 (Newspapers are typically written to a sixth-grade reading level.)
  • Sentences per paragraph: statistically tied at 2.7 for Biden and 2.6 for Palin.
  • Letters per word: tied at 4.4.
  • Ease of reading: Biden, 66.7 (with 100 being the easiest to read or hear), versus 62.4 for Palin.

The analysis said Abraham Lincoln spoke at an 11th-grade level during his seven debates in 1858 against incumbent Stephen A. Douglas in their race for a Senate seat from Illinois.

I worked for a few years as a technical editor and writer in the defense industry, and we had to calculate reading levels for manuals written for various branches of the service.  At the time, the Army and Marine Corps wanted manuals written at newspaper levels, while the Navy and Air Force wanted them slightly higher.  These days, word processors automatically calculate reading levels, but in the mid-80s, we had to do it ourselves.  Reading level was and is calculated using a calculation of average numbers for sentences per paragraph, words per sentence, and syllables per word.  We literally had to take sample pages and use tally sheets and hash marks to analyze reading levels for each manual to ensure that they met the contractual obligations.


This analysis just shows that Palin used a somewhat higher ratio in this calculation than Biden.  That doesn’t necessarily make her a better communicator, not even if people ignore content altogether.  Newspapers write at a sixth-grade level for a reason.  They want to communicate quickly and broadly, without creating unnecessary obstacles to comprehension.  Politicians want this more than newspapers, since they get fewer opportunities to communicate to individual voters.

In that sense only, Biden may have been the more effective communicator.  Keeping it short and punchy works better, a lesson Biden frequently forgets.  In this case, the differences were slight enough that it wasn’t noticeable in the debate itself.

So while this gives Palin supporters a reason to crow about her trouncing Biden’s supposed intellect, it’s really meaningless, especially with the slight gap noted by CNN.  They’re better off reviewing Biden’s gaffes, which is a much more abundant resource.

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