Friday, June 18, 2010

Smarter than the average bear

When President Obama finished his speech Tuesday evening, my husband turned to me and asked, “What do you think?” My “teacher instincts” told me that the speech went over the heads of most viewers, including the media, because instead of focusing on just the oil spill, the President spoke of the big picture: our gluttonous need for oil and the nation’s long-term energy policy. My husband agreed with me when I said that the speech was too complicated for most people.

So, I was not surprised when CNN, MSNBC, as well as FOX, said that the speech left them wanting. There was not enough emotion, not enough profanity (none), and too broad a stroke. They complained that the President looked at the big picture – or as FOX put it, pushing his energy agenda, specifically cap-and-trade (although Obama did not mention cap-and-trade). They complained that the speech was dull. Almost all the pundits didn’t get it, except Ed (the Ed Show), who exactly understood the entire speech and said that this was why he likes the President – because “he is in the top 5% of the smartest people in this nation.” In other words, our President is smarter than the average bear.

But why did no one get it?

CNN talked to Paul J.J. Payack, a language analyst who said the President’s prose was too complex. He said the President’s comments on Tuesday night, written to a 9.8 grade level, went way over the head of most viewers. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, the average American reads at around an 8th grade level – with average listening comprehension hovering somewhere between 8th and 9th grade.

The speech was not dumbed down enough. It needed to be on the level of my middle schoolers – most of whom did not pay attention unless I constantly moved around the room, stopped to ask questions, and used a good bit of wit. The speech needed average words and only one punch line – the same way I taught my students – one concept at a time, then reiterate many times until you see their light bulbs go on. Anything more than that and… our nation of ADD, like, you know, plugged-in scatter-brains don’t get it.

Payack revealed his results on Wednesday, the same day that BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg said his company cared “about the small people” – and a day before BP CEO Tony Hayward was preparing his own written remarks to be presented to Congress. Many analysts mocked the BP chairman for talking “down” to the American public. Yet, according to Payack, Obama apparently should have dumbed down his speech a bit more.

Payack specifically criticized Obama’s 20-word average per sentence, as well as the speech’s average word length of 5 letters. The language expert said in doing so the President “added some comprehension difficulty for his target audience.” Since the speech went over the heads of most, it obscured his messages because most listeners just didn’t get it.

This particular analysis of Tuesday’s speech contrasted sharply with other Obama speeches. The “Yes, We Can” victory speech, for example, was written for grade 7.

Is it possible that Tuesday’s explanation of the Gulf oil spill may have simultaneously been Obama’s smartest as an orator – and at the same time, his poorest, because he did not dumb it down enough for the average bear?

The pundits thought it was poor. What does that say about the average pundit?

And what does that say about the average American?

Ahhh…so that’s why so many Americans loved Bush – he spoke on their level – below it, actually.