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Deconstructing the Inaugural Address

Many commentators around the world have no doubt already weighed in on the strengths, content, and feeling of U.S. President Obama's inaugural speech. Here is a look at the mechanics:

Number of words: 2414 (according to Microsoft Word)

Number of sentences: 110

Number of words per sentence: 21.4 (Microsoft) or 21.9 (my calculator)

Grade level, based on sentence length and word length: 8.3

Sentences with passive verbs: 10 percent (Examples: "The capital was abandoned"; "It must be earned.")

Number of times "I" appears: 3

Number of times "we" appears:  62

Number of times "my" appears: 2

Number of times "our" appears: 66

Number of times "you" or "your" appears: 17 (typically referring to people outside the U.S.)

Number of sentences that begin with a conjunction: 15 (and, but, so, nor, yet)

Here are a few observations I share, which are based on the text:

1. You can move a nation and a world writing at 8th-grade level.

2.  It is perfectly okay to use passive verbs selectively. (Search this blog for "passive verbs" to learn more.)

3. To create a sense of community, use "we"–not "I" or "you."

4. To communicate in an engaging way, feel free to begin sentences with conjunctions such as "but" and "and." The President's speech includes not one "however," "moreover," or "in addition."

What did you observe about the inaugural address?

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

3 comments on “Deconstructing the Inaugural Address”

  • Hi Lynn – Wonderful statistics and observations. Obama’s inaugural speech was one of the best I have heard off late and here are some of my observations:

    1) Communcation is all about packing a lot of meaning into a few words. Speech was not too long, but it was very meaningful. I think same applies to writing as well.

    2) He was able to paint pictures with his words and delivery style. People were hooked when he spoke because he added feelings into each and every spoken word.

    3) From a management standpoint, his speech was a progressive one. One of the statistics could be how many progressive and positive words he used in his speech. People easily relate with whatever is progressive and hopeful.

    4) As you rightly pointed out, he did not use any junk into his speech. He was speaking with utmost clarity (of thought and words) which created the impact. No junk and no interruptions made it even better.

    All in all, a great speech.

  • This is a great analysis.

    Point #4, seems more acceptable in verbal communications than written communications. It sounds better verbally than it reads or looks in writing.

  • Tanmay and Ali, thanks for adding your comments.

    Tanmay, it would be interesting to compare Mr. Obama’s use of positive and negative words. To communicate a sense of urgency, I believe it was necessary to show both sides.

    Ali, I frequently begin written sentences with conjunctions such as “but” and “and.” My purpose is to avoid long, stringy sentences and to communicate energetically.

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