THE BLOG
07/31/2014 03:39 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2014

Revealing Janet Yellen's 'Double Bluff' Strategy

Win McNamee via Getty Images

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 that Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen used this week in an attempt to throw Senator Elizabeth Warren off-balance during a financial hearing.

What the Fed chair was attempting to bury was the fact that the Federal Reserve is struggling in its duty to audit disaster-contingency plans of major banks.

Listen to Yellen's responses to Senator Warren's questions and you'll hear long multi-syllable words. She never missed the chance to use a complex phrase when a simpler one would have done just fine. She also used lengthy pauses, with a hint of "I'll say this slowly so that you can all keep up." What we were seeing was a double-bluff approach to slipping something past the audience. One part of the bluff used language designed to confuse, while the second attempted 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 obscure, and it's a perfectly honorable part of a public speaker's 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 it's the technique that delivered Donald Rumsfeld's immortal: "known knowns... known unknowns... and unknown unknowns..."

By the time the press had finished disentangling Rumsfeld's syntax, Rumsfeld himself had invaded Iraq.

Elizabeth Warren, however, responded to Yellen's statement in the only way that you can respond 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, was neither, and happily stated that the Janet Yellen's argument had 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 should 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 tale of the emperor and their mythical new clothes. Simply stating "I'm a little confused" is all it takes to reveal that your opponent has no argument.