We might think that the most energetic speakers are more credible, and this is often true. Not always, however. Consider Yellen’s persuasive challenges:
1. Nobody in the United States Senate wants to put a firebrand in charge of the United States Treasury. Yellen needed to persuade people that she would be a sure, calm, sober advocate of good fiscal policy.
2. Economics is a scary subject, whose devotees throw around analytic geometry problems and billion-dollar figures like confetti. Yellen needed to give economic policy a human face.
3. Having run up enormous budget deficits over the last four years, Republican legislators have suddenly become fiscal hawks. Yellen needed to advocate President-Elect Joe Biden’s economic policies, which call for massive coronavirus relief, without scaring the hawks too much.
Speaking remotely from her home due to coronavirus restrictions, Yellen used two simple techniques to establish her credibility.
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Economics, the Human Science
Yellen’s first technique was to talk about her background in a way that gave economics a human face. She accomplished that by talking about her parents, who she described as children of the Great Depression. She said this about her father, a family physician:
“He was the kind of doctor who treated the whole patient. He knew about their lives, about when they’d been fired, or couldn’t pay. Those remain some of the clearest moments in my childhood.”
She then emphasized that she viewed economics, not as a sterile economic field, but as a way to help people improve their lives:
“Economics is sometimes considered a dry subject, but I’ve always tried to approach my science the same way my father approached his, as a means to help people. And this committee, I believe, has viewed it the same way, especially during these last few years.”
It never hurts to compliment your audience, does it?
Similarly, discussing her expertise, Yellen did not waste time boasting about either her credentials (she was a Professor of Economics at the University of California Berkeley and chaired the Federal Reserve Board for four years) or her impressive scientific research record. Instead, once again, she focused on the human side of economic science:
“I have spent almost my entire life thinking about economics and how it can help people during hard times.”
In other words, instead of discussing abstruse economic theories, Yellen emphasized her commitment to helping people. Since the economy has been struggling during the pandemic, her comments were both timely and thoughtful.
Yellen’s second technique was to speak calmly and clearly. Although she used plenty of vocal variety, Yellen never raised her voice. She spoke slowly and quietly in measured tones and did everything she could do to play the part of the calm, self-assured grandmother. That was exactly the right tone for her purposes. I could almost smell chocolate chip cookies baking. It’s hard for even the most bellicose politician to get angry with someone who speaks as she did.
Still, her delivery was varied and interesting. For example, when she said of her father, “He was the kind of doctor who treated the whole patient,” she paused just before she said “the whole patient.” That emphasized her point without ever making her sound shrill.
Yellen’s obvious goal was to sound calm but concerned. Her delivery did as much to accomplish that as the words she spoke.
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Yes, people admire powerful speakers like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Barack Obama. But there’s something to be said for a speaker who is calm and reassuring, whose caring attitude gives us hope. Always relaxed under pressure, always measured in her thoughts, Yellen makes herself an easy person to trust.
Interested in Yellen’s research? This 2018 paper is less technical than most of her work and helps readers understand current United States economic policies.
Thanks to rev.com for once again preparing a quick transcript of Yellen's statement.
P.S. I have no idea whether Yellen is a grandmother, much less whether she does or does not bake cookies. Not my point.
Image: Federal Reserve