Speak more simply!

Posted on January 28, 2019

This is not going to surprise you, but Donald Trump speaks like a fourth-grader. This was confirmed by the data site Factba.se using the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level metric. Specifically, the past fifteen U.S. Presidents spoke at the following grade levels:

  1. Herbert Hoover, grade 11.3
  2. Jimmy Carter, grade 10.7
  3. Barack Obama, grade 9.7
  4. Gerald Ford, grade 9.4
  5. Dwight Eisenhower, grade 9.4
  6. Richard Nixon, grade 9.4
  7. Bill Clinton, grade 9.3
  8. John F. Kennedy, grade 8.8
  9. Ronald Reagan, grade 8.0
  10. Lyndon Johnson, grade 7.6
  11. Franklin Roosevelt, grade 7.4
  12. George W. Bush, grade 7.4
  13. George H.W. Bush, grade 6.7
  14. Harry Truman, grade 5.9
  15. Donald Trump, grade 4.6

So, on the one hand, “Ha, ha, Trump is a moron.” But there is another hand. Trump speaks at a level that is easily understood by non-college educated voters. Please recall that in 2016 he won non-college educated White voters by margin of nearly 40 percent.

I’ll bet that most progressives speak to audiences at levels similar or above those of recent Democratic Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama (9th or 10th grade). While we don’t have to stoop to Trump’s level of ignorance, perhaps we should be aiming to speak more like recent Republican Presidents Bush and Bush (6th or 7th grade)?

Specifically, how do progressives address fellow citizens at their own level?

First, when speaking to persuadable Americans, avoid insider language. Most Americans don’t pay much attention to politics and they know very little about issues. After all, with America’s highly polarized parties, anyone who pays attention has probably already taken a side.

Whatever you do, don’t speak in the technical language of legislating and lobbying. You probably realize that most Americans don’t know anything about CBO scoring or Third Reader or the Rules Committee. But average voters also don’t know an amendment from a filibuster. Don’t use abbreviations ENDA for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or TABOR when talking about a Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Don’t refer to SB 234, paygo requirements, the ag community, or the Hyde amendment.

Insider jargon serves a useful purpose. It is shorthand that allows those who understand to communicate more efficiently. But it is also a means to be exclusive, to separate members from nonmembers of the club. That’s exactly why such language is pernicious; you can’t expect persuadable Americans to understand a language that was designed, in part, to exclude them.

Second, avoid ideological terms. Persuadables are the opposite of ideologues. You should not complain of corporate greed because persuadable Americans don’t have a problem with corporations. You should not say capitalism or any ism because most Americans don’t relate to ideology. Don’t say neo- or crypto- anything! Like technical policy language, ideological language is a form of shorthand. But to persuadable voters, this just sounds like the speaker isn’t one of them.

Third, focus on arguments, not facts. Progressives embrace facts—the more, the better. That’s important in governing but less effective in persuasion. Advocates will pack a speech with alarming facts and figures like: “30 million Americans are uninsured;” or “one in five children live in poverty;” or “32 million Americans have been victims of racial profiling.” When you speak this way, you are assuming that listeners would be persuaded—and policy would change—if only everybody knew what you know.

But that’s not how it works. Politics is not a battle of information, it is a battle of ideas. Facts, by themselves, don’t persuade. Statistics, especially, must be used sparingly or listeners will just go away confused. Your argument should be built upon ideas and values that the persuadable voters already hold dear.

If you’re addressing an audience, a few well-placed facts may help illustrate why the progressive solution is essential, while too many facts will diminish the effectiveness of your argument. If you’re speaking one-on-one or in a small group, let your listeners ask for more facts. When people do that, they’re helping you persuade them.

In sum, you need to accept Americans as they are, not as you wish they were. They don’t know what you know. And yet, if you use language they understand, you have the upper hand in any argument. Progressive policies benefit nearly all Americans. Progressive values reflect the aspirations of the vast majority of our fellow citizens. You’re on the voters’ side, you just need to speak in a way that communicates it.