Which of these sentences will likely make you sleepy?

  1. It is a scientifically derived fact that thinking complex thoughts need not lead to prolonged expression typified by extreme length of utterance cluttered by inane expression and, we illustrate a variety of oratorical principles that can and will result in clarity and certainty of communication that will in no way compromise the validity of the scientific assertion.
  2. Overly complicated speaking shuts down listening.

For those of you that finished 17 years of education (high school plus two graduate degrees), you would no doubt be tantalized and stimulated when hearing Sentence 1. For the rest of us, we would likely pay sharper attention hearing Sentence 2.

Why? Because Sentence 1 is “Foggy.”

The Fog Index was developed by Robert Gunning in 1952. Applying it to reading and writing, Gunning claimed that if you have a Fog Index of 12 or more, you have a significant risk of not being understood. The lower your Fog Index, the better. The Fog Index for the writing level of many popular magazines is between 7 to 10.

Of course, Gunning’s Fog Index focused on writing, not the spoken word. But if we apply the Fog Index to written speeches that become spoken, we can perhaps gain some revealing insight about the way we talk to people.

For example, the Fog Index for President Lincoln’s first inaugural address is 16.9. Only 54% of the US population would have comprehended the speech.

Here’s the opening sentence from Mr. Lincoln’s first inaugural address:

In compliance with a custom as old as the government itself, I appear before you to address you briefly, and to take, in your presence, the oath prescribed by the Constitution of the United States, to be taken by the President “before he enters on the execution of this office.”

Quite a mouthful, a 50-word sentence!

Now let’s fast-forward. President Ronald Reagan continues by many to be described as “The Great Communicator.” Let’s consider his first inaugural address. Any guesses on his Fog Index? We’ll get to that shortly.

Compared to Lincoln’s, here’s the opening sentence from President Reagan’s first inaugural address:

To a few of us here today this is a solemn and most momentous occasion, and yet in the history of our nation it is a commonplace occurrence.

President Reagan’s Fog Index for his first inaugural speech is 11.9. Remember, 12 and under is the magic number for ease of understanding – according to Robert Gunning. It is estimated that over 80% of the US population comprehended his speech.

Consider these statistics in comparing Mr. Reagan’s speech to Mr. Lincoln’s:

Average number of words per sentence: Reagan: 19 Lincoln 27
Percent of single syllable words: Reagan 70% Lincoln 66%
Average number of syllables per word: Reagan  1 Lincoln  2
Percent of 3+ syllable words: Reagan 13% Lincoln 16%
Percent of U.S. comprehension Reagan 83% Lincoln 54%
The Fog Index Reagan 7 Lincoln 16.9

So what’s the lesson learned by considering Robert Gunning’s Fog Index? Said simply, when it comes to first inaugural addresses, Mr. Reagan probably kept more people listening longer than did Mr. Lincoln.

Of course, there is more to commanding attention in a politically charged environment than a speaker’s sentence construction. Calculating the Fog Index cannot determine the quality of a speaker’s character or the countless other ways their leadership impacts people

But we can learn much from the way speakers talk to their listeners. Using these lessons learned, here are some things you can do to keep your listeners listening.

  1. Use shorter and simple sentences
  2. Speak with shorter words
  3. Use strong verbs that communicate action
  4. Choose words that most of your listeners would actually use when they talk
  5. Aim for a Readability score below the 12th grade reading level
    1. You can calculate this score under the Tools menu of Microsoft Word (Tools – Spelling and Grammar Check).
    2. You can calculate a Fog Index as of this writing at http://www.readabilityformulas.com/free-readability-formula-tests.php

And consider this recent discovery. These days, listeners typically pay attention for relatively short periods of time. In 2015 Time Magazine reported research from Microsoft documenting that our average attention span was about 8 seconds – sadly, 1 second shorter than the average goldfish who clocked in at 9 seconds. Social media, computer graphics, and special effects have taken their toll on how we pay attention. We’ve all become accustomed to bold, loud, and dazzling sights and sounds that bombard our senses in just split seconds. So presenters beware. Today’s technology is an omnipresent competitor for your listener’s attention.

The bottom line: To keep your listeners listening and awake – it’s fine to think brilliant thoughts. Just be sure to say them in short sentences using colorful, impactful, and easily recognizable words.

By the way, the Fog Index for this blog (sans Mr. Lincoln) is 9.2 which means you’re probably still awake!

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