ALAN GREENSPEAK – WHAT’D HE SAY?

The art of wisdom is sometimes knowing what to ignore. Take Alan Greenspan. Whether you agree with him or not, his 18 year stewardship of the U.S. Central Bank deserves credit for reminding us that creative ambiguity is an effective communications tactic.  Business and government leaders, and anyone whose job it is to talk to the media, or stakeholders, please take note. Creative ambiguity can be very helpful especially if your words have the ability to make whole economies, stocks prices, or stock indicies rise or fall.  The concept was first coined by former Vice-President, Minnesota Senator and Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey, who was a master of its use. Humphrey was often chided for making long-winded speeches that sounded substantial but had everyone scratching their heads at what the man actually said.  Windbag was the word often used by his critics and friends. But Hubert just smiled and nodded because it was all quite deliberate.  When he could not, did not, or should not have replied to a question, Humphrey used creative ambiguity to obscure the answer, using a battleship of words to float a rowboat of thought. And sometimes, there wasn’t even a rowboat available. He knew what to ignore. He preferred blurring rather than clarifying an answer that could get him, or his country, in trouble.  Alan Greenspan took the game to a new level.  What some called his tangled locution when testifying before Congress was, by his own admission, intentionally obscuring.  He acknowledged the method in a recent interview promoting his new book, “The Age of Turulence,” by referring to much of his testimony as “mumbling with great incoherence.” In one interview he wryly said, “Did I make myself understood?  If so, it was unintentional.” 

How does creative ambiguity actually work?  Try this sample of GreenSpeak before the U.S. House of Representatives in 1997.  

“The concept of price increase is conceptually identical, but the inverse of the depreciation of the value of the currency.

That does not mean that we think that money is irrelevant; it means that we think that our measures of money have been inadequate and as a consequence of that we, as I have mentioned previously, have downgraded the use of the monetary aggregates for monetary policy purposes until we are able to find a more stable proxy for what we believe is the underlying money in the economy.”

Oh yeah!   And this from the mouth of an Ayn Rand devotee -  she of strongly worded, no holds barred language. Where’s John Galt when you need him?

There have been other master practioners of creative ambiguity over the years.  Legendary New York Yankee Manager Casey Stengel comes to mind.  Stengelese it was called.  It’s best used when your specific words can do considerable damage, and/or when fabrication is the only option available.  In other words, you cannot be tagged for harming or lying. But here’s the irony. You actually have to be quite well-spoken to pull this amorphous tactic off.  Leaders who cannot put a complete and meaningful sentence together simply cannot do it.  As professional performers say, to deliberately sing off-key requires a highly skilled singer.  So whether you embrace or decry his monetary policies, can we agree that Alan Greenspan deserves credit for reminding us that you have to know what you’re talking about in order to say nothing.  And in business or politics, sometimes nothing is better than something. That’s the art of knowing what to ignore.

Tom Alderman

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