John-Paul Flintoff

What Kind Of Public Speaking Is Scarier Than This?

Reading obituaries is one of my favourite activities. (I love writing obituaries too, but that’s another story.)

Yesterday’s Times had an obituary of Murray Walker, once voted the greatest sports commentator of all time. “His fortissimo and unquenchable enthusiasm could grip even those to whom [Formula One motor racing] was unintelligible”, the paper stated.

If, like me, you never cared particularly for Formula One racing, I urge you to hang around a moment and think about Murray Walker as a specimen of public speaker. As you see, I have read the obituary carefully, and underlined parts in red pen.

(I also hand-wrote the lines I particularly enjoyed, available to you here on this page, into my commonplace book.)

It’s worth contemplating Walker’s job for a moment, as if you were about to step into his place at short notice.

Here’s a breakdown of what you need to do:

1. talk interestingly;
2. about an unplanned sequence of events that unfold before you, mostly on a screen, and perhaps sometimes off the screen;
3. events involving people you know personally, whose lives are in danger at every moment;
4. sustain the interest, and enthusiasm, for a longish period.

It doesn’t look easy, does it. But somehow Walker managed, year after year. How? Well, here’s what the Times tells us, divided into the five canons of traditional rhetoric:

1. Invention (what he wanted to achieve)

More important than the content of any talk is the purpose. Walker’s purpose, he once said, was to “communicate as much as I possibly could in the minimum amount of time… excitedly”.

2. Arrangement (what material to use, in what order)

For several hours before each race, he scurried around the pits and garages talking to drivers, managers, mechanics and engineers, gathering information to set the scene and enrich the commentary.

3. Style

Bearing in mind that he was talking about unplanned events, at speed, it’s hardly surprising that Walker made mistakes. These came to be known as Murrayisms: gaffes, malapropisms, tautologies.

The Times picked out several, of which my favourite is this: “There’s nothing wrong with the car except it’s on fire.”

To suggest that Walker’s style was all errors and blunders is – I hope it goes without saying – unfair. He also got lots of things right. But it’s the gaffes he’s remembered for (with affection).

He once cleverly reframed what others called his mistakes: “I don’t make mistakes. I make prophecies that immediately turn out to be wrong.”

4. Memory

The Times gives no clue to how Walker remembered everything.

Alas, it does note that his memory sometimes failed him: he gave up commentating, the paper reports, after being hurt by criticisms of the number of factual errors slipping into his commentary during the 2000 season.

5. Delivery

The TV critic Clive James once described Walker as commentating “as if his trousers are on fire”. His nickname was “Turbomouth”.

This high energy was achieved, Walker explained, by standing throughout the race, “bouncing around on the balls of my feet”.

If like most readers of this post you aren’t, in fact, preparing to commentate on a televised Formula One race, I hope you find something in here that will help you deliver any other kind of talk.

Till next time.

Posted: March 16, 2021

Keywords: obituaries, public speaking, commonplace book