October 13, 2008

I listened carefully to a full nine-minute address to the nation by President George W. Bush on Oct. 10, and have now read and studied the complete text. In spite of the president’s reputation as a clumsy speaker, I found the remarks a model of civic clarity. Whoever wrote them could teach political and business writers a thing or two because what the country needs now, more than ever, are forms of journalism that can explain, explain, explain.

Oh, and did I mention “explain”?

What is clear is that causes and solutions to the country’s economic crisis are not clear. They are dense, thorny and tedious, which is why so many journalists depend upon simplified reductions such as Main Street vs. Wall Street.

Years ago, when I wanted to make my own writing clearer, I read the work of very clear writers.  They had some things in common, which I compiled in an essay called “Making Hard Facts Easy Reading.” My analysis of the president’s speech reminds me of the tools of clarity I find most useful:

1. Use shorter sentences to slow down the pace of information. This is especially true when the words are coming through the ear rather than the eye. Most of the sentences in Bush’s speech are simple in structure. And the longest I could find was 24 words.

2. The president expresses the most important ideas in the shortest possible sentences: “We can solve this crisis — and we will.”

3. When he wants to build his argument to a high point of persuasion, he uses a series of short sentences: “The plan we are executing is aggressive. It is the right plan. It will take time to have its full impact. It is flexible enough to adapt as the situation changes. And it is big enough to work.” If you are counting words per sentence, that’s 7, 5, 9, 10, 7.

4. Although there is some technical and bureaucratic language, the president took some effort to explain jargon. Take “liquidity”: “Key markets are not functioning because there’s a lack of liquidity — the grease necessary to keep the gears of our financial system turning. So the Federal Reserve has injected hundreds of billions of dollars into the system.”

5. Notice in that last example a logical movement from problem to solution, something that occurs throughout the speech.

6. After an introduction, the president offers, and numbers, six “problems we face and the steps we are taking.”

7. The speech writer enhances comprehensibility by creating cohesion between the sentences. The most common strategy is to repeat a word or idea at the beginning of a sentence that appears near the end of the previous sentence as in: “The Fed has joined with central banks around the world to coordinate a cut in interest rates. This rate cut will allow banks to borrow money more affordably…”

8. He uses phrases that help the listener pay more careful attention, as in “Here’s what the American people need to know:” and “the fundamental problem is this:”; Those are great uses for the colon: to make an announcement or explanation.

Ironically, the weaknesses that generally keep President Bush from being a strong orator seem to work for him here. He does not sound like an expert using big words to talk down to people — he seems incapable of that. He sounds more like a high school history or economics teacher talking to a class that needs to know and wants to learn. I’d argue that we want our best explanatory journalism to do the same.

The president’s address is by no means the clearest explanation of the financial crisis I can imagine.  But a clearer one would take longer and have to involve not just words, but images as well. Given the general economic illiteracy in the country, including mine, even words like “capital” and “The Fed” would have to be defined. But if we are willing to take responsibility for what citizens know and understand, it is worth the effort.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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