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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Is Congress getting dumber, or just more plainspoken? - Sunlight Foundation

I've already posted a couple of times about a recent study that reported on the apparent grade level of speeches in Congress by senators and representatives. I've emphasized the fact that a lower grade level is an achievement of success -- to be praised, not condemned.

So why am I posting again about this study? I have three reasons:

First, because some news media continue to write about the study's findings in negative and misleading ways. They imply that members of Congress who speak at lower grade levels are less smart -- or "dumber," as the headline for this link offers as an alternative to "plainspoken." (My blog post, BTW, links to an article by the organization, Sunlight Foundation, that conducted the study.)

I disagree with that assessment. Why? Because for members of Congress -- and for all of us -- communication is more effective when more and more people can understand it. To be plainspoken  is a good thing! Communication is not successful when fewer and fewer people can understand what a member of Congress is saying or writing -- or understand what you are saying or writing.

While the "dumber" label may be true for some of members of Congress, I maintain that most are likely doing it as people skilled in both quality communication and quality politics. (Or, at least, because their PR advisers and speech writers are skilled communicators!) They also may be naturally, normally plainspoken, not caught up (yet) in the jargon and atmospherics of highfalutin, rhetorical speechifying.

Second, I'm posting about this study again because it provides insights that I wish the PR and campaign advisers for progressive/liberal politicians would read and consider. I'm a progressive/liberal political activist, and it dismays me that, as reported in this study, conservative politicians are more plainspoken than progressive/liberal politicians.

I'm willing to bet that "Tea Party" politicians and activists have been so successful partially because they're speaking and writing in language that most people can easily understand. It's not necessarily what they're saying but how they're saying it that gets them votes and support. Liberal, progressive politicians and activists absolutely must do the same thing if they want to gain support and win elections.
And third, I'm disturbed that reporters emphasizing the negatives of this report are being ironic, at best, or hypocritical, at worst. As a former newspaper reporter/editor and journalism instructor, I know -- for a fact -- that journalism students are taught to write at a lower grade level.

Journalism students -- and skilled journalists -- know that not because they're "talking down" to readers. They're doing it because they're trying to reach as many readers as possible. And most people, even high school and college graduates -- do not normally talk, write, read or listen at a 12th grade level.

A junior high/middle school level (sixth to ninth grade) is much more common and comfortable for most people -- even when they can understand and use language at a higher level.

The lessons of this study -- about effective, high-quality communications -- apply to all fields, not just politics and government. Every one in every field -- from law and medicine to education and engineering -- can be and should be more plainspoken, at least when they're talking and writing to people outside their narrow, jargon-filled field of interest.

If you would like to be more plainspoken (and "plainwritten") -- as I strongly recommend -- please visit Garbl's Plain English Writing Guide.

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