By: Alex Freeman
Donald Trump is not a wordsmith like his predecessor—yet this could end up being his biggest strength
Today, before thousands of people gathered on the National Mall, Donald Trump took the Presidential Oath—and then he gave a speech.
His remarks were a part of a tradition as old as our nation, in which freshly-minted presidents address the multitudes gathered before them. Many of these speeches are forgettable. Some are not. As we have observed time and time again, only history can determine the significance of Inaugural Addresses.
Given that President Trump just delivered his address twelve hours ago, it seems impossible to analyze the political and historical implications of his remarks. Pundits and partisans will spend the coming days dissecting his address, anyhow, but they will likely fail to analyze one component: the data behind Trump’s rhetoric.
Using Microsoft Word’s Readability Statistics tool, I have compiled data on the objective rhetorical statistics of Trump’s speech—as well as from President Obama’s addresses for comparison.
The results are astounding.
First, here are the basic data points of Trump’s speech.
The address on January, 20 2017 lasted 16 minutes and 19 seconds and was 1,412 words long.
Take this compared to January 2009, when then-President Obama delivered a 19 minute and 24 second address of exactly 2,393 words.
Obama’s slightly lengthier remarks were delivered with remarkable cadence, vis-à-vis Trump. Using the above numbers, Obama spoke at a pace of 123.35 words per minute (WPM), while Trump’s address paced along at just 86.57 WPM. President Obama’s recent penchant for pauses and slower cadence would lead most to expect President Trump’s speech to have been delivered with more urgency—but we should recall that Obama was once, too, a firebrand orator. It was only as his time in office progressed that his words became subjected to more deliberate tempo, reflection, and frequent pauses.
A significant determinant of any speech’s ease-of-understanding is simply the rate at which listeners are forced to process information. Trump’s slower cadence in his Inaugural Address is the first indicator of a greater trend my basic data reveals: the speech was written to be accessible. Trump seemingly wanted to ensure that his address resonated with every American—especially those living in the Rust Belt and without college degrees.
Slightly grittier analysis confirms this trend.
Word Readability Statistics software reveals that President Trump’s address had on average just 1.5 sentences per paragraph; whereas President Obama’s 2009 address averaged 3.3. This statistic works on a similar premise as the WPM data above. Listeners find it easier to process very short, compact bits of information than longer, more nuanced ideas. By this metric, it seems Trump transitioned through ideas more quickly than President Obama in 2009. As a result, Trump had less time to flesh out his ideas with quotes or references, as did his predecessor.
Trump’s short paragraphs were also comprised of short sentences.
He spoke an average of just 15.7 words in each sentence, whereas President Obama spoke 21.1 and 22.4 in 2009 and 2013, respectively. Trump’s short sentences combined with commensurately brief paragraphs made his speech accessible for the working class people who voted for him.
This is not to take away from the power or magnitude of President Obama’s rhetoric. He is the best wordsmith and orator of our time. But despite his efforts to ignite widespread hope with his Inaugural Addresses, it seems the President may have talked over the heads of some Americans. In my experience on the campaign trail in 2016, I heard voters call Obama “condescending,” and “arrogant,” and “holier-than-thou.” Who knows exactly what these people meant when they said these things, or what factors invoked their visceral repugnance of the President. No one will ever know exactly. But perhaps the fact that President Obama frequently spoke above a level they could understand made them feel inferior, scared—or even downright angry.
They also called President Obama a “liar,” more than anything else, and constantly praised Trump as “honest.” Undoubtedly this was due, in part, to broken promises and failed policy initiatives on the part of the Obama Administration.
But perhaps these same voters weren’t actually being lied to after all. Is it possible they simply did not understand their president the way he meant his words to be understood? The president’s remarks after events like the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting or the death of Michael Brown were later twisted and framed as anti-gun harangues. Certainly gun-law rhetoric was present in the President’s speeches following these events. But to construe these remarks as explicitly political—as many Americans did—would be a gross misinterpretation of President Obama’s message, perhaps partially due to misunderstanding of his diction.
Trump, by contrast, has left absolutely no room for interpretation in his remarks since announcing his candidacy. He was crass and accessible through the entire campaign. The entire world knew where he stood not on policy, but certainly on sentiment.
If this was the case, then it seems Trump’s plain and accessible language was a welcome departure from Obama’s ivory tower, Harvard vocabulary that made a segment of the electorate feel excluded. It is hard to think that anyone could detest a President for his brilliance and articulacy at the rostrum—and perhaps no one consciously did. But subconsciously, millions of Americans could very well have grown frustrated over the past eight years as they tuned into Inaugural Addresses, State of the Union speeches, and press conferences at which Obama spoke above their limits of comprehension. No one can unreservedly devote themselves to a man or his causes when they can’t explain or understand swaths of his speeches.
In conclusion, I leave you with a statistic that showcases the disparity in intellectual rigor of the Inaugural Addresses delivered by President Obama in 2009 and 2013 vis-à-vis President Trump’s 2017 address. It is called the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level metric, and it measures the grade level at which a typical American student would be expected to comprehend a particular passage of writing. The decimal place is included for increased accuracy.
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of Inaugural Address:
President Obama 2009: 8.7
President Obama 2013: 9.6
President Trump 2017: 7.9
President Obama consistently spoke at the high school reading level, according to this metric. This is likely due President Obama’s use of longer sentences, longer words, and longer paragraphs. He also spoke more rapidly in his Inaugural Addresses, as we explored above.
Today, President Trump delivered an address that we could expect most 7th graders to understand. He used small words. He spoke in short, choppy paragraphs that required little analysis or reflection.
Going forward, we can expect more of the same from President Trump. The days of President Obama’s spectacular, contemplative wordsmithing from behind the US presidential seal are over. Ahead are more speeches like today’s: choppy, accessible, and simple.
Yet this shift in rhetorical strategy could be the one factor that helps President Trump communicate with and include more Americans than any president to ever come before him.