The problem with the American public

We’re just not that bright. Robert Lehrman, Al Gore’s former speechwriter, reminisces about the struggle to accurately convey complex ideas to the masses:

It’s tough to do great work when your first draft is often your last. It also can be difficult to make someone sound like Moses addressing the Israelites when you announce a three-point plan for reducing the deficit. And it’s an art to write for a general American audience, which averages a seventh-grade reading level. It genuinely distresses some academics that politicians today speak many school grades below George Washington’s Farewell Address. But a few years back researchers gave us a sense of what that seventh-grade level means. They tested adult, English-speaking hospital patients on some common directions about health, like the idiomatic sentence “Do not take this medicine on an empty stomach.” Did patients understand it? More than 40 percent didn’t.

To speechwriters that means, don’t write sentences even that complex. You can’t hand your boss a speech saying, “It’s got all your ideas. But 40 percent of your audience won’t know what you’re talking about.” Luckily, English is a rich language. Without losing nuance you can say a lot with simple words — use, not utilize; now, not currently — and simple sentences.


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