Foreign Policy Debate

10.16.12

Mark McKinnon: Obama Has to Dumb It Down at Hofstra Debate

Here’s where Obama went wrong in Denver—he spoke at an academic comprehension level, targeted his message at Romney instead of the audience, and used less tonal variety. Mark McKinnon on how to turn it around tonight.

Is President Obama too smart for debates?

We know his energy was low in Denver. That he looked like he wanted to be anywhere else. That he looked churlish and peeved. And that he missed countless opportunities to raise issues or counter Mitt Romney’s assertions.

Is it possible that Obama was too smart and talked over everyone’s heads? Or is it that Romney communicated more effectively? Those are both conclusions you could draw from analysis by Quantified Impressions, a personal communications analytics company.

Based on word and sentence length, not content, Obama spoke at an academic/scientific comprehension level. He delivered his message at a grade level of 9.4, which is appropriate for an academic or scientific text, while Romney spoke at a magazine or newspaper grade level of 6.9. The targeted grade level for spoken-word presentations is 6.5, to ensure maximum comprehension. So Romney was a more effective speaker by this measure.

Additionally problematic was Obama targeting his message at his opponent instead of his audience. Word repetition contributes to audience recall. The words most used by the president, “governor” (47 mentions) and “Romney” (34 mentions), reflect his contentious tone. Romney spoke more directly to his audience, leading with “people” (68 mentions) and “get going” (49 mentions).

Romney also spoke at level more understandable for average viewers and at a faster vocal pace. While Obama spoke 4 minutes and 26 seconds more than the former governor, Romney said more, speaking 206 words per minute, 30 words per minute faster than Obama (172 words per minute). Research demonstrates that adults can listen with full comprehension at up to 300 words per minute.

‘While most speakers focus on what they are saying, from what we have learned they would be better off in terms of effectiveness by paying more attention to how they are saying it.’

And Romney spoke at a lower pitch and used more tonal amplitude. Communications research shows that candidates with lower-pitched voices tend to be more successful in obtaining positions of leadership. Quantified Impressions measured vocal pitches and found that Romney speaks at a lower average pitch than Obama, and his tonal variety is higher than Obama’s.

“Common intuition suggests that content drives communications effectiveness,” says Noah Zandan, president of Quantified Impressions. “What we found, surprisingly, is that style trumps content when it comes to establishing voter favorability. While most speakers focus on what they are saying, from what we have learned they would be better off in terms of effectiveness by paying more attention to how they are saying it.”

There’s no question that many factors contribute to voters’ perceptions about debates and who wins and who loses. And certainly confidence, content. and command of the issues, as well as articulating a vision for the country, are at the top of the list.

But as these analytics demonstrate, there is some science to the art as well. And Obama might do well to follow what the late Texas governor Ann Richards used to say to me: “Dumb it down so my momma can understand it.”