by Peter Watts Paskale
Speaking slowly and clearly is the best way to help someone to understand you, right?
Wrong. Speaking slowly and clearly, and especially speaking slowly and clearly in a monotone, is the best way to throw someone’s concentration off. And that’s the technique Federal Reserve Chairman, Janet Yellen used this week when attempting to throw Senator Elizabeth Warren off-balance during a financial hearing.
What the Fed Chairman was attempting to bury was the fact that the Federal Reserve is struggling in its duty to audit the disaster-contingency plans of major banks, their so-called “living wills”.
Listen to Chairman Yellen’s responses to Senator Warren’s questions and you’ll hear long multi-syllable words. She never misses the chance to use a complex phrase when a simpler one would have done just fine. You’ll also hear lengthy pauses – there’s a hint of “I’ll say this slowly so that you can all keep up”. We’re seeing a double-bluff approach to slipping something past the audience. One part of the bluff uses language designed to confuse, while the second attempts to make the audience feel dumb about not understanding.
The technical term is “skotison”. It comes from an ancient Greek word that means to darken something, or to obscure, and it’s a perfectly honorable part of a public-speakers weaponry.
It’s the same approach that you’ll have heard described as – “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit”, and the technique that delivered Donald Rumsfeld’s immortal “known knowns…. known unknowns… and unknown unknowns…” By the time the press had finished disentangling the syntax, Rumsfeld had invaded Iraq.
Elizabeth Warren however, responded in the only way that you can to a skotison – she challenged it:
“I’m sorry Chairman, I’m just a little bit confused….”
The skotison strategy relies on the assumption that your opponent will be either too proud or too intimidated to admit to their confusion. Elizabeth Warren however, is neither, and proudly admits that the argument has lost her completely. It’s interesting to wonder what the effect might have been had the Washington press corps shown the same instincts at that Rumsfeld press conference.
The more senior an individual, the more we can reasonably expect them to know how to make themselves clear. If therefore we find ourselves confused, there’s a high probability that it’s because the other party intended us to be so.
It’s one of the oldest rhetorical tricks in the book. If your opponent is using the skotison double-bluff, then remember the fable of the Emperor’s new clothes, state “Hang-on a moment, I’m a little confused”, and it will be miraculously revealed that your opponent has no argument.