Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
July 12, 2013
By Aaron Belz
It’s called an elevator pitch, a sound bite; it’s what you’re saying in a nutshell. For public speakers and marketing professionals, the ultra-short form is necessary to communicate complex messages succinctly and memorably—to make them “sticky.” Now, according to Yahoo!News reporters Chris Wilson and Olivier Knox, Twitter is making this short form even shorter, notably for American politicians. Keeping complete sentences to fewer than 140 characters increases the likelihood of viral propagation via the world’s most popular text-sharing platform. The folks at Yahoo! have created an online widget that rates any given text’s “tweetability,” or the percentage of its sentences that weigh in under 120-characters (leaving 20 characters for attribution).
Although the rise of the sound bite—almost always lamented as cheap or inadequate—over the past century is generally regarded as a factor of the advent of radio and television, the aphorism has been key to public orators’ success for millennia.
It’s likely, in fact, that technological advances also contributed to lengthening our public texts. The rise of the printing press in the 16th and 17th century made possible novels such as Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Pamela (1740). The printing press’s relative ease of production removed the limits that had necessitated wit and plot action to keep a story going and inaugurated a windy lineage that leads straight through Dickens and James, whose enormous tomes might have intimidated Shakespeare himself. Shakespeare’s plays average 20,000 words, while Dickens’ novels regularly weigh in around 150,000-200,000. Tolstoy’s and Rand’s signature works near the 600,000-word mark. (Read more about novels and word count.)
Sentences have also sprawled. James’ and Proust’s experiments with gigantic sentences have irked some readers; Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Joyce’s Ulysses is literally thousands of words long. “It is a press, certainly,” remarked Johannes Gutenberg; “but a press from which shall flow in inexhaustible streams, the most abundant and most marvelous liquor that has ever flowed.” (See Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis for an expansive treatment of historical and technological changes’ affect on the shape of literature.)
Yet despite the way publishing technology—the printing press and Twitter included—have arguably influenced the way we construct sentences and texts, public figures have always tended to keep their sentences terse. Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” rates 61% in the tweetability widget. Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty” speech rates 84%. Ben Franklin’s “Way to Wealth,” which collects and summarizes much of his Poor Richard wisdom, rates 78%. “Great estates may venture more, / But little boats should keep near shore,” writes Franklin, in typical brevity, and, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” But it doesn’t take an American rationalist to reel off a bunch of short sentences. Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” rates nearly 80% tweetable.
We can safely draw two conclusions: (1) It isn’t Twitter that makes oratorical sentences shorter, and (2) Shorter sentences do not imply a dumbing down of rhetorical content. A third conclusion, more local to Wilson’s and Knox’s thesis, is that President Obama’s tendency toward terseness matters not a whit. The White House Twitter account (@whitehouse) does propagate Obama’s sentences in tweet form, but it’s not exactly the tail wagging the dog, or Twitter calling the speechwriter’s shots. And even if it is, it’s consistent with the history of speechmaking.
Try running speeches by Jonathan Edwards, Queen Elizabeth, Socrates, Demosthenes—maybe the Apostle Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus—through the tweetability widget, alongside a number of Obama’s addresses to Congress. The results are remarkably similar. Fifty to sixty percent of each speech’s sentences are “tweetable.” If Jesus and Patrick Henry rate higher, it’s probably because they were dishing out advice or calls to arms, and such orations have always relied upon memorable slogans. So in the end it’s primarily content that dictates form; technology’s changing limitation or promise, though influential, is of secondary importance.
— Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His most recent collection of poems is titled Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010).
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”