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America lags on plain speech

The Internet is changing how leaders talk. Leaders from Rome to Beijing and beyond are helping usher in a new era of plain speaking. But American leaders are lagging behind, stuck in old patterns of windy and obfuscatory speech.

Around the globe, what's in? Plain words, concision, and speech that is clear on who does what.

Consider the Catholic Church's new leader, Pope Francis. In just two weeks, he's made a deep impression with simple robes, plain shoes, and direct speech. On Palm Sunday, in his first major address before a crowd of a quarter-million people, Pope Francis drew on the homespun wisdom of his "nonna" to argue that Christians must resist the temptations of material wealth: "My grandmother used to say to us, 'Children, the burial shroud has no pockets!'"

A world away, the same incentive to speak plainly shows up in China's new leader, Xi Jinping. In his debut in November, the Chinese premier delivered a short, direct appeal to Chinese citizens to avoid "formalities and bureaucracy" and tackle China's problems, especially corruption. "Xi talks like a normal human," an activist grudgingly noted.

Contrast Xi's natural mode of speaking with that of his predecessor, Hu Jintao, who in a long parting speech at the same Party Congress managed to use the shopworn phrase "socialism with Chinese characteristics" an astonishing 79 times. No wonder that Xi's words seem so fresh.

Elsewhere we see the same push to speak plainly. In India, young leaders like Kavita Krishnan, furious at the state of women's rights in her country, are challenging the word games of older, traditional male leaders: "The word 'safety' with regard to women has been used far too much. All us women know what this 'safety' refers to. ... It means, 'You behave yourself. You get back into the house. You don't dress in a particular way. Do not live by your freedom.' ... We reject this entire notion. We don't want it."

What is driving this move toward plain speech? In part, generational change. Young leaders step forward and speak in more direct and unadorned ways than their elders. But why?

Credit the rise of social media like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. These powerful new tools, used by hundreds of millions of people around the globe, are habituating us to talk directly with leaders, to expect a human voice, to demand answers to our questions.

Yet, American leaders lag behind. Mitt Romney lost his presidential bid last year in part because he couldn't speak plainly. When his big tax cut idea was criticized for being fiscally irresponsible, he claimed that eliminating tax loopholes would make up the difference — but he steadfastly refused to name a single actual loophole to eliminate.

For his part, Barack Obama has worked to cultivate the appearance of plain speaking, from his presidential Twitter account to his habit of referring to people as "folks." But on many hard issues, from the complexities of his health care plan to the deficit to lingering high unemployment, he has ducked clarity in favor of broad, vague language.

And when the president does try to speak plainly, he often falls flat. Trying to rally Americans last month in the sequester battle with Republicans, his blunt warning triggered a backlash: "FBI agents will be furloughed. Federal prosecutors will have to close cases and let criminals go. Air traffic controllers and airport security will see cutbacks, which means more delays at airports across the country. Thousands of teachers and educators will be laid off." When sequester came and nothing much happened, the president's words seemed like overheated partisan rhetoric.

Nor do we get much clarity from other leaders in politics or business. Five years after a devastating financial meltdown, we still lack a clear explanation from any leader of who did what, what went wrong, and what has changed.

And the obfuscation continues. A report this month from a Senate subcommittee investigating JP Morgan Chase's disastrous "London Whale" trades last year, which cost the firm upwards of $6 billion, points the finger at "jargon that even the relevant actors and regulators could not understand."

Such obscurantism is an American tradition. Alan Greenspan, the longtime chairman of the Federal Reserve, once told a senator, "If you understood what I said, I must have misspoken."

Much of the rest of the world seems to understand that real leadership demands plain speaking. When will we? The writer Victor Hugo famously said you can resist an army but not an idea. He was not quite right. The way to defeat an idea — or to hide a difficult fact — is to make it incomprehensible. And in this lamentable regard, our leaders are world class.

Michael Harvey teaches leadership and business at Washington College in Chestertown. The second edition of his primer on clarity, "The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing," has just been published by Hackett. His email is

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