Watch your words

Watch what you say, goes the old saying (and also look before you leap). And there are enough people who will tell you to listen to the words of the wise; indeed there is a huge quotation industry out there. Analyze what they say, and you will gain wisdom, and can use that wisdom in your own speeches.

Sometimes, though, that analysis can go really, really deep. There are people who hang on to every word, literally. If you are the president of USA, trust that there will be somebody who will analyze every word of your speech, checking for passive voice, sentence length, characters per word and more. There is such a somebody.

Global Language Monitor, is a website that monitors how the powerful people in the world speak, using language to mould the thoughts of the people they rule (Kipling did say words were the most powerful drugs available to humans). Did they connect with the audience, did they say clear things or vague things, did they offer solutions or just grand words – every bit is monitored.

Take President Obama’s speech on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill as an example. Most of those who heard the speech were left underwhelmed by it. Global Language Monitor provided a rather sharper analysis.

“The Readability Analysis of the Oval Office address appears below:

* Passive Voice — With some 13% passive constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century. In political speaking, the passive voice is generally used to either deflect responsibility, or to have no particular ‘doer’ of an action, at least when speaking about himself or his Administration. Otherwise, BP was the clear ‘doer’.

* Sentence Length — Obama spoke in long, though well-crafted, sentences about 20 words in length.

* Sentences per Paragraphs – Just below four sentences per paragraph. Usually four sentences in a paragraph would be quite easy to understand, but the 19.8 words per sentence, added some difficulty for his target audience.

* Characters per words – Obama’s words had an average of 4.5 letters in them, a bit longer than typical for him.

* Flesch Reading Ease – Reading Ease came in at 59.1. The Closer to 100, the easier to read. This is well within the normal range for Oval Office Addresses.

* Flesch-Kincaid Grade-Level – 9.8 Grade Level. This is the highest of any major Obama speech. Obama’s closest match among recent presidents is Ronald Reagan, whose speeches generally ranged from the 9th to 10th grade levels. (President George W. Bush usually spoke at a seventh grade level.)”

Make your own conclusions. But there’s a lesson to be learned by us in advertising and PR. Your client’s press conference, shareholder meeting, media interviews, all of these pose potential headline risk. What they said will quickly proliferate over the internet. Anything perceived negative will then filter through, and spread again, faster than the original. Until you are left with a huge task fighting the negativity, and the bitter taste may not go even if the truth comes out.

You may want to put your speech through some of Global Language Monitor‘s tools to determine any possible conflict. A few recommendations while writing a speech, based simply on the analysis of Mr. Obama’s speech:-

  1. Put in active language, “I said”, “I did”, “We intend” etc. Let people know you are taking action and responsibility.
  2. Short sentences. It stops people from cropping them to suit their agenda.
  3. Short words. Remember Shashi Tharoor’s mess up with ‘interlocutor’?
  4. Stay at 5th, 6th standard level. You may sound a bit dumber, but you’d probably sound unambiguous.
  5. Stay away from words for which a sinister double meaning might exist (refer Urban Dictionary).
  6. Put up the original text of the speech on the net, so that no one can misquote you.

About ozymandias

What am I? A body and brain, products of carbon concatenation chemistry, an intelligence and conscience to enable bits of DNA evolve. Maybe a pharaoh, maybe a dung-beetle, never more than a safe conduit for some genes.
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