Newsweek magazine published a language analysis of US presidents done by FactBase concluding that Donald Trump speaks at a mid-fourth grade level, the lowest of all presidents analyzed, more than one grade level below the next lowest, Harry Truman. The analysis assessed the first 30,000 words each president spoke in office, and ranked them on the Flesch-Kincaid grade level scale and more than two dozen other common tests analyzing English-language difficulty levels. FactBase compared these findings to Trump’s own claim that he is a genius.
Fake News Alert. Language reading level has very little relationship to traditional measures of intelligence (IQ).
Take John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton for example. In FactBase’s analysis, these two ranked right in the middle of the pack, speaking at 8th and 9th grade levels, respectively. Yet, according to a University of California Davis study of presidential intellectual brilliance, Clinton (estimated IQ of 156) and Kennedy (estimated IQ of 158) rank 3rd and 4th among the smartest US presidents. Only John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were ahead of them. Clinton is widely regarded as one the most effective communicators in recent history.
Intellectual brilliance has little to no relationship with communication effectiveness. Not even education level. So what is the differentiator between smart people who can communicate, and smart people who can’t? Personality Agility and Social-Emotional Intelligence.
Is your personality an asset or liability?
Personality Agility is the ability to live into and maximize your personality. We all have six different personality types within us, arranged in a preferred set order like a six-flour condominium. Each “floor” in our condominium has a preferred style of communication, motivational needs, and predictable self-sabotage distress patterns. One or two of these types within us is primary and influences our behavior. Since personality structure is fixed by age seven, our effectiveness as a communicator has everything to do with how we leverage our personality; not just one part of it, all of it.
You can assess personality agility by noticing how frequently someone uses recognizable perceptual frames of reference from each of the six personality floors. Here’s a video where I demonstrate. The reading level of a person’s language is much less important than if they can “speak the language” of each personality type.
Kennedy and Clinton showed personality agility, the ability to “move around in their condo,” energizing different parts depending on the audience. Clinton was particularly effective at leveraging empathy, charm, values, playfulness, logic, and imagination as needed. Trump is not. In fact, it’s almost painful to watch when Trump faces situations or people for whom empathy or logic is needed. He simply can’t do it and reverts back to the most visited floor of his condominium specializing in charm and persuasion. Or, he does what any of us would do when we don’t have the bandwidth to deal with a situation appropriately; he goes into distress. While all three presidents had different personality structures, Kennedy and Clinton were agile and maximized what they were given. Rather than being an asset, Trump’s personality is often a liability.
Distress is the enemy of agility
Distress management is critical for personality agility. Not getting our needs met in healthy ways and not taking good care of our personality can lead to distress. In distress we go on lock-down, sabotage ourselves and others by trying to get our needs met negatively. For the most part, Kennedy and Clinton managed their distress effectively. Trump often lets his distress get the better of him. His distress is his default leadership communication strategy. Here’s an earlier personality analysis of presidential candidates.
Interesting factoid: The Thinker and Persister personality types in distress probably have a higher Flesch-Kinkaid reading level than when they are not in distress. That’s because they impose an expectation of perfection in distress and it shows through overcomplicated words and phrases.
SE-Q and personality agility
Social-Emotional Intelligence (SE-Q) is the ability to recognize and manage our own emotions, recognize those of others, and use this information to generate positive interactions. SE-Q is a much stronger predictor of communication and leadership effectiveness than IQ. Personality agility is a big asset for SE-Q because it allows a person to see the world from multiple perspectives, empathize with how others might experience a situation, and leverage multiple motivational strategies to gain positive influence. Of course, this assumes positive intentions. Even sociopaths have a certain level of SE-Q.
If you want to be a great communicator, don’t worry about how complicated or intellectual you speak. Focus instead on knowing who you are, taking elegant care of your personality, and energizing all parts of your condominium so you can speak all six personality languages.