What the Tea Party Can Teach Arts Professionals

I learned on NPR’s Morning Edition this week that the speaking style of congressional representatives has changed in recent years.

“It turns out that the sophistication of congressional speech-making is on the decline, according to the open government group the Sunlight Foundation. Since 2005, the average grade level at which members of Congress speak has fallen by almost a full grade.” – npr.org

Using an algorithm that measures readability in terms of grade level, researchers analyzed the Congressional Record to track this junior- to sophomore-level decline, which appears to have been fueled by the influx of Tea Party freshmen.

At first I thought the story was about the dumbing down of the US Congress as a result of an invasion of less intelligent, less well educated, socially conservative firebrands, but that’s not how it turned out. Much to my surprise it was a story about some unusually adept communicators who’ve learned that political discourse – even on the house floor – is a highly public, highly persuasive affair.

Instead of being embarrassed by their achievement, several of the lowest-scoring members boasted about having found a more effective way to appeal to their constituencies. Rather than embracing a long-standing tradition of statesmanlike eloquence, some new members have opted to speak a more common vernacular in the nation’s capitol knowing that cameras and microphones will deliver their straightforward message to voters back home.

Like arts marketing, political speechmaking in Washington was once an elevated, peer-to-peer endeavor that involved using a sophisticated, somewhat exclusive insider language. But the tea party has learned that motivating new voters means speaking to them in a language that’s unencumbered by formal tradition, frivolous ornamentation or academic complexity.

South Carolina Republican Mick Mulvaney, who scored lowest on the scale, Graduated from Georgetown University with honors then earned his law degree at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. He said his father, who was a grammar teacher, trained him “to write in a clear and concise fashion. You didn’t use big words if small words would do.”

I’m no fan of the Tea Party or their language guru Frank Luntz, who teaches them how to persuade voters, but I do know that Luntz is right about this: “Life has changed. Voters not only expect, but they demand that members of congress communicate in a way that is more understandable and more meaningful to them.”

The lesson for arts professionals requires only a small adjustment in Luntz’s words: Life has changed. New audiences not only expect, but they demand that arts organizations communicate in a way that is more understandable and more meaningful to them.

If your organization is still using the flowery, self-congratulatory, hyperbolic language of 20th century arts marketing, it may be time to take a cue from some very effective (however potentially objectionable) politicians and start speaking in a more direct, more persuasive language – one that your undecided audiences understand.


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