Back in November, the Church announced a new General Women’s Meeting that will occur the weekend before each General Conference. This meeting will include girls who are eight to eleven years old in addition to women and teenage girls. I saw a number of people on the Bloggernacle suggest that the result would be that either the talks will be over the youngest girls’ heads and therefore boring to them, or the talks will be aimed at them and therefore boring to the women and teens. For example, on the first possibility, here’s Rebecca J at BCC:
Why would you include eight-year-old girls in a women’s conference? . . . Perhaps inviting 11-year-old girls would not be inappropriate—girls on the cusp of Young Woman-hood, as it were. . . . But what do our leaders have to say to grown women that could possibly be relevant and not mind-numbingly boring to eight-year-old girls?
This question got me to wondering whether I could measure to what degree Conference speakers were pitching their talks differently to differently-aged audiences. I’m sure there’s an in-depth way to answer this question that requires analyzing the actual content of Conference talks. But as you can probably guess, I didn’t go that route. Instead, I took a shortcut and looked at a related question that I could answer more easily. I looked at whether Conference talks differ in how difficult their language is, depending on which session they’re given in, and therefore the age of the audience they’re aimed at.
I took the texts of all 3119 Conference talks given between 1971 and 2013 and scored them for reading difficulty using the tool at readability-score.com. I included all the Relief Society and Young Women’s sessions that aren’t technically part of Conference, because these were my best data points given that their audiences have narrower age ranges than any of the general sessions (or the priesthood session). One step I did have to take before scoring the talks was to take out everything in parentheses. Speakers vary in how they cite sources: some have references in parentheses and others use footnotes. The footnotes were easy to exclude, but the parentheses really messed up the scoring. In many cases it appears that references in parentheses were counted as whole extra sentences, which wasn’t good because the readability scoring is partly a function of sentence length. So that’s why I took out anything in the talks that appears in parentheses.
The reading difficulty tool gives scores on several different readability measures. The measures are all highly correlated, so they are likely to give similar results. I chose to use the Flesch-Kincaid (FK) grade level score because it was listed first. I chose the grade level score over the reading ease score because grade level is likely an easier scale to understand. We’ve all been in school, so we have a sense of the difference between writing understandable to sixth graders and writing understandable to tenth graders.
I also had to put the sessions into categories. For general sessions and priesthood sessions, this was trivial, but for some of the women’s or young women’s sessions in the 1970s and 1980s, it wasn’t always clear what exactly the audience for the session was. I had to look at who speakers addressed when they opened their talks, and sometimes at notes helpfully inserted at the beginning of talks (I assume by Ensign editors). Here’s how I classified each of the women’s/young women’s sessions. Please let me know in the comments if I’ve gotten any of them wrong.
Once I had all the sessions categorized, I calculated the average FK grade level for talks in each type of session. Here are the results:
It looks like talks in general sessions are the most complex (highest FK grade level on average), with Priesthood and Relief Society sessions being slightly less complex. Talks in Young Women’s sessions are noticeably less complex. When RS and YW are combined, the talk complexity falls between the RS alone and the YW alone, and when the 10 and 11-year-olds are added, the complexity goes down a little from RS+YW.
It’s odd to me that general sessions have higher complexity than Relief Society sessions, since the latter have an audience of adults only and the former include everyone. The same could be said of Priesthood sessions, since they exclude children while general sessions include them. It may be that Priesthood session talks are more often addressed to teenagers than are general session talks. Certainly that’s my impression, but I haven’t checked.
Looking just at the women’s sessions, the pattern makes more sense: the older the audience, the more complex the talks. This result supports the concern raised by Rebecca J and others. When 8-year-olds are invited to the women’s session, it seems likely that the talks will be simplified to be comprehensible to them, and therefore less engaging to older attendees.
Let me show you one more graph before I wrap up. This one may require a little bit of explanation if you haven’t had a stats class recently. It’s called a boxplot. For each session category, rather than showing just one value (the average), it shows five: the minimum, the 25th percentile, the median, the 75th percentile, and the maximum.
The minimum and maximum are straightforward to find: line up the FK scores for a session category in order from smallest to largest. The first one in order is the minimum and the last one is the maximum. The other three values also come out of this lining up of the scores. The median is the score that’s halfway through the list. The 25th percentile is the score that’s 25% of the way through the list; the 75th percentile is the score that’s 75% of the way through the list. (As you can probably guess, this means the median can also be called the 50th percentile.)
Then it’s just a matter of putting each of the five scores for each session type in the boxplot. The median is the middle horizontal line in the middle of the box. The 25th percentile is the bottom of the box. The 75th percentile is the top of the box. The minimum is the short horizontal line below the box that has a vertical line extending out to it; the maximum is the short horizontal line above the box that also has a vertical line extending out to it. (Note that this is just one type of boxplot; see the Wikipedia link to read about more.)
Here are the boxplots.
One thing this graph emphasizes that the previous one misses is how much variability there is in complexity of talks within each type of session. It’s not as though every RS session talk is more complex than any YW session talk. It’s just a general tendency for RS session talks to be more complex. This graph also allows more complete statements like that over 75% of YW session talks are less complex than the median RS session talk (because the top of the YW box–the 75th percentile–is below the middle of the RS box–the median). The same is true of the RS+YW+10 sessions: over 75% of talks are less complex than the median RS session talk.
I don’t think this graph changes the story. It still seems likely that speakers will pitch their talks to younger girls and miss the women. I’ll be interested to see what the first new format women’s session is like, though. One fact does encourage me: I hadn’t realized before doing this that the age cutoff for women’s meetings had been changed so much before. I didn’t remember that 10- and 11-year-olds had ever been invited. This gives me hope that if including the 8-year-olds doesn’t work, the age cutoff might be moved again.