Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!
Information-based speeches are a lot rarer (and harder) than you’d think. You may imagine that a scientific conference presentation, or a report to shareholders is all about the facts, but it isn’t really. You’re also trying to impress the audience with how clever you are, or reassure them about the success of the company.
Purely information-based speeches are tough gigs. Think of a witness testifying in court, or a student announcing the results at the athletics carnival, or the returning officer announcing who won an election. You can’t really prepare the material before you start, you have to be 100% accurate, there’s no chance to elaborate, explain or use any of the normal techniques that speakers deploy to engage or entertain listeners…. Worse, you just get one go at it. If it’s out of your mouth it’s on the record.
Consider then the extraordinary skill of the race caller. One of the only truly, purely informative speakers we have.
His (and I think they are all men) arsenal starts with a formidable memory for facts… which horses, what jockeys, what colours, what scratchings… Then he needs perfect diction, vocal clarity, a poet’s turn of phrase, a talent for descriptive gymnastics on a subject that moves at eighteen metres a second, as well as the ability to improvise when necessary.
Races are broadcast without the normal 7 second delay, so there is no safety net. Under pressure there’s the odd mispronunciation: ‘Sh**t’s coming down the inside’ instead of ‘She’s coming down the inside’ for example. There are many callers with a fly in their mouth or a coughing attack mid race who keep on going. In his early days as a race caller Ray Warren lost the field in a heavy fog on the other side of the track – so he just made something up until they emerged, did a quick adjustment and no one was any the wiser.
Australians love their race callers, as The Roar recently reported, and ours are the best in the world by far. They live or die by their accuracy. Bert Bryant supposedly once said, mid race, that Kingston Town couldn’t win from there - which of course it did. Years later he said ‘I called over 5000 races correctly but everyone only remembers that one’.
Greg Miles is now number 1. He’s called 29 Melbourne Cups but says he still feels nervous. Then there’s Bill Collins, who practised as a child by calling the race between matches floating down the gutter. But my vote goes to Ken Howard. If you want to time-travel back to when shops were closed on Saturday afternoons and cappuccino was ‘continental’, listen to this, courtesy of the ‘Sounds of Australia’ collection at the National Film and Sound Archive.
Fun fact from the Victorian Racing Club: In 1866, two horses with the same name, Falcon, ran in the Melbourne Cup, and in 1867 there were two Tim Whifflers (one of them won).
My thanks to PSD.