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11/17/2015

Donald Trump, grade level, and your financial writing


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TrumpDonald Trump’s appeal has surprised many observers of presidential elections. Love him or hate him, you can’t ignore his presence. Part of his appeal rests on his use of plain language, according to a recent article. That’s something financial professionals should note because of its implications for your writing.

Trump speaks at a fourth-grade level, according to “For presidential hopefuls, simpler language resonates,” which appeared in The Boston Globe. The newspaper calculated the grade level of presidential candidates’ announcement speeches. Lower grade levels use fewer characters and syllables per word, as well as shorter sentence lengths.

Simpler language wins

“Simpler language resonates with a broader swath of voters in an era of 140-character Twitter tweets and 10-second television sound bites, say specialists on political speech,” according to the article.

Trump’s language hit the lowest level of the 19 presidential announcement speeches analyzed for the article. After Trump, the next simplest were John Kasich at grade level 4.7 and Ben Carson at 5.9. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley hit the lowest grade level for their party. They tied at 7.7.

Is it a coincidence that the presidential front runners have among the lowest grade levels for their parties? Perhaps not.

Less tolerance for higher grade levels

Political speeches of the past hit higher grade levels. Here are the levels of some presidential speeches, according to The Boston Globe:

  • 9 for President George Washington’s “Farewell Address”
  • 9 for President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 “State of the Union”
  • 11 for President Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address”

I believe that readers are generally less patient with wordiness than they were even five years ago. I know I am.

Message for financial professionals

What does this mean for you as a financial professional who writes? If you want to attract and retain readers, lower the grade level of your writing.

I’m not suggesting that you aim to write at a fourth-grade level, although that might work for a blog post on a basic topic. I do suggest that you become more aware of your output’s grade level and work to boost the ease with which readers can grasp your message.

Try this exercise: Calculate your grade level. You can find it using Microsoft Word’s readability statistics or the website I discuss in “Free help for wordy writers!” Then, try to lower your writing’s level by two grades.

If you can delete some unnecessary words or break a long sentence into two, you’ll have made progress.

Many financial communications exceed grade 12. That may be too high for audiences with short attention spans. However, you may find it hard to hit the direct marketers’ idea of eighth grade or lower.

When you write about complex topics, sometimes longer sentences are easier to understand than short sentences. Lower grade levels may also sacrifice nuances—or fail to satisfy your compliance officer. While I often hit an eighth-grade level on this blog, I am happy when I get my clients’ work down to a tenth-grade level. Even that isn’t always possible. Still, I do my best to make even technical topics relatively easy to understand.

You may think my advice doesn’t apply to you. You may figure that institutional clients or smart people will plow through whatever you write. I disagree. No one ever says, “Please rewrite this in a hard-to-understand style.”

Susan Weiner, CFA, is the author of Financial Blogging: How to Write Powerful Posts That Attract Clients, which is tailored to financial planners, wealth managers, investment managers, and the marketing and communications staff that supports them.

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