Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are, as of now, the two towering figures that seem to dominate politics in the United Kingdom. May and Corbyn – the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition respectively – have, in their careers, endeavored to master the art of speeches, political campaigning, and persuasive language.
This art, however, is not by any necessity unscientific. The truth, in fact, is the opposite. A politician can completely alter the manner in which a phrase is interpreted simply by changing the tense, or by swapping around the order of words. A study in the journal Political Psychology by psychologists Teenie Matlock and Caitlin Fausey (University of California, Indiana University) discovered that a grammatical change from the imperfect past tense to the perfect past tense would influence a quarter of readers’ faith in a political candidate accused of covering up an affair.
It may come to no surprise then that there is a mathematical calculation for discovering the complexity (or U.S. reading grade level) of writing or speech. This is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, and it is calculated with the following equation:
The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is extremely useful for distinguishing the reading age at which a political speech can be understood. It must be noted, however, that different politicians are likely to use various forms of language to appeal to different audiences in more than simply one situation. Often, in fact, simple language is able to conjure up far more support as the speaker seems far less pretentious. On the other hand, a politician or political candidate that uses far too elementary vocabulary may seem condescending or inadequate for politics. As with many things, speech writing is – in all its aspects – about delicate balance.
Another disclaimer: Let it be known that the following conclusions are made from transcripts of the two leadership speeches of Corbyn and May, so as to compare examples of their speech that are equal in both their significance and relevance. Many factors cannot be accounted for – such as how each candidate speaks outside of formal rhetoric, and whether their speeches have been scripted or edited in advance by professional aides.
For Theresa May, Leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party and Prime Minister of the UK, the following two speeches were analysed.
May received a Flesch-Kincaid Grade score of 6.9. As such, the PM forms her speeches so as to be understood by a typical American student of the late 6th Grade (UK Year 7 – at the level of a twelve or thirteen-year-old).
According to a YouGov poll, the largest support base of the Conservative Party is in the retired 70+ age bracket, where 69% of votes were for Conservative candidates in 2017. The Conservatives are most popular with skilled manual professions, the same poll reveals, and voters with a low education level (GCSE and below).
For Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition, the following two speeches were analysed.
Corbyn was judged to have a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level of 9. This proves that his language is more complicated and advanced in his rhetoric than May’s, and that it is estimated to only be comfortably within the reading capabilities of an average British Year 10 student (15 years old and above).
The difference in result reinforces YouGov’s findings that, “amongst those with high level educational qualifications (defined as degree-level or above), Labour led by 17 percentage points”. Labour is also most voted for in the youngest demographics, and has the most support amongst full-time students and unemployed or low-income households.
With every ten years an individual ages, however, the same YouGov statistics have proven that likelihood of voting for Labour decreases by 9%, whereas the likelihood of them voting for the Conservatives increases by 9%.
So, to conclude, it is Jeremy Corbyn who dominates with the complexity and distinct advancement of his speeches – perhaps key to his ability to “outmaneuver” the Conservatives in the 2017 snap election. Corbyn addressed over 100,000 people at over 90 events in his campaign. On the contrary, May was criticized for a lack of active campaigning – which included refusing to attend party leader debates against Corbyn, as well as major candidates from other parties. May denies being “frightened” of losing in a debate on live TV, claiming that “debates where the politicians are squabbling amongst themselves don’t do anything for the process of electioneering”.
One matter is clear for certain, however, and that is that the UK’s leaders are leaps and bounds ahead of their cross-Atlantic acquaintance. Donald Trump, the President famous for saying “I know words, I have the best words,” and that his success was a result of “being, like, really smart,” maintains speech at a 4.6 on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. President Obama, however, can be placed highest on the scale – at a 9.7 level. The more popular predecessor to Trump, Obama wowed the world with his rhetoric on several beautiful occasions – such as his 2004 DNC speech, his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance, and his Charleston shooting eulogy.
Photo: Sophie J. Brown