The television screens were on and ready at 9 p.m. Tuesday night, and the crowd in the Harvard Institute of Politics John F. Kennedy Forum was poised to catch the words of President Obama as he delivered the first State of the Union address of his second term.
Yet, as students sat and listened to the carefully prepared speech, each could conceivably take away a very different message from over an hour of oration broadcast via myriad different forms of media. And so, we asked the question, of the more than 6,000 words used by the president, which ones resonated the most with students in the crowd and those across Harvard’s campus who were listening in?
The fact is that even when we’re “listening,” we can hear something very different from the person sitting right next to us. This depends on the kind of listening we are using — whether it is “critical listening,” for example, where we have the intention of judging and evaluating the speaker’s words, or “biased listening,” in which we default to expectations and stereotypes that might color our perception of the speech itself. And so, to understand student reactions to the address, we started with the text itself.
A visual representation of the most highly reported words by size from a survey of Harvard students following the State of the Union address.
Harvard students were asked both in person and by anonymous survey to answer this question: “If you could name one word or phrase that stood out to you the most from the president’s State of the Union address, what would it be?” In total, 855 students responded.
Although the president laid out a wide berth of issues from sequestration to immigration to gun policy, the third most highly reported word by Harvard students was “education,” which was mentioned 15 times in the president’s speech, in addition to 17 additional mentions of the words “school,” “preschool” and “high school.” While the use of words like “education” represents a paltry .23% of the entire speech, it was reported by 8.2% of survey respondents. Perhaps it is not surprising that education is something that is very much on the minds of the college students who made up the sample.
However, among these students, some were specifically interested in the president’s discussion of preschool education and the academic interventions that they believe will set children on the right path from a young age.
Julia Konrad, a senior at Harvard, is one such example. She praised the president for emphasizing the importance of quality education early in a child’s life in order to set him or her on the right educational trajectory.
Of the top 10 most reported words in the survey, the word that was most often reported — by almost 14% of respondents — was the word “vote.” While, in reality, the president mentioned the word “vote” only 12 times during his 6,417-word speech, it was his concentrated use of the word toward the end of the speech and the emphasis with which he urged American citizens to use their fundamental right to voice their opinion that made the message stick, according to several Harvard undergraduates.
A close second was the word “deserve,” which the president paired with “vote” no less than seven times in the span of just a few paragraphs.
Taking a series of measured pauses, the president demonstrated his aptitude for connecting with his audience on an emotional level as he recalled memories of some of the most horrific tragedies that the country has seen in the last two years.
“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote,” Obama said.
Although a survey of a single sample of college students at one university is hardly representative, it does suggest that our listening can be selective and unique to our own interests and specifically, in the case of the president’s address, the policy issues that resonate with us most strongly. Also among the top-10 most reported words or phrases by the Harvard students who were surveyed were “guns,” “climate change” and “minimum wage.”
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