Good presentation of manuscripts is a vital part of being a speechwriter. An immaculate manuscript deters meddlers.

You want to impose upon your speaker that to make a change is like pulling a brick out of a delicate Jenga tower.

The whole performance could be put in jeopardy.

A few spelling mistakes and grammatical errors have the opposite effect. The speaker gets above himself and starts telling you how to do your job.

So when you’ve finished drafting your masterpiece, it helps to have a rest for ten minutes. And then go to ‘Tools’ in Word (assuming you use Microsoft Word) and click on the ‘Spelling & Grammar’ option.

You can go through your document rather laboriously checking for spelling mistakes. It usually involves pressing ‘ignore’ about 50 times.

At the end of the process you will be told the ’Spelling and Grammar check is now complete’. At which point you click ‘ok’ It will then throw up some ‘readability statistics’.

I went through this process with a speech by Vítor Constâncio, Vice-President of the European Central Bank. The speech was titled, Strengthening Macroprudential Policy in Europe. I chose it because the ECB is known for being a bit loquacious – (though things are improving!). Here are the readability statistics:

Counts –

Words 3476
Characters 18836
Paragraphs 42
Sentences 150

Averages –

Sentences per Paragraph 4.7
Words per Sentence 23
Characters per Word 5.3

Readability –

Passive sentences 21%
Flesch Reading Ease 32.1
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 12.0

It’s hard to establish fixed laws of speechwriting, but surely readability is vital quality, because a speech will be read aloud in front of an audience.

When I’m doing speechwriting training, I get sent scripts with familiar faults. It’s hard to point out to people who’ve got in the habit of writing speeches in a certain way, that their sentences are three times longer than they need to be.

Or, when a certain bureaucratic turn of phrase has taken root, that they have far too many passive sentences. It’s useful to introduce them to the readability statistics and get them to think about it for themselves.

The problem is producing something in the house style of a film script looks terrifyingly thin. But film scripts are designed to be read and immediately understood.

If you take the last speech in The Shawshank Redemption, you have no passive sentences, an average of 3.2 words per sentence, an 85.2 reading ease and a 2.3 Flesch Kincaid Grade level.

If want to write a good speech, I would suggest that if you’re average number of words per sentence is over 20, you’ve got a problem. Likewise if your number of passive sentences is over 20%.

The advantage of running your speech through this process is that you get a statistical picture of how you’ve constructed your speech. I’ll explain what the statistics mean and you can make your own mind up whether you’re on the right track.

The Flesch Reading Ease uses the word, paragraph and character statistics to calculate how easy your content is to read on a scale of 0-100.

The lower the result, the more complex your piece is to read. The closer you get to 100 the more perfect the readability of your text. Mr Constâncio’s score of 32.1 would suggest that his words had a soporific quality. A short perusal of his text confirms that.

The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level takes the statistics and translates them into an average American school grade. By that means, they can estimate how many years of education someone needs to understand what you’re saying. Since most of us don’t know anything about the American grade system, add five onto the grade number and you’ll get the average age instead.

1 Comment

  1. Christopher Lomas

    Excellent post, Brian.
    The Obama team certainly works hard on accessibility; the 2016 State of the Union address gets an impressive Flesch Reading Score of 63.1. Passive sentences account for a teeny 6%.

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