Storytelling From The Field

On the varying requirements of commentary across various media and the one common ingredient that elevates all of it.

Sporting contests are deeply embedded in human DNA. Whether you like or dislike them, you cannot ignore the thrills and spills of the sporting world. The media carpet bombs us with coverage of events from every corner of our globe. With such saturated 24/7 coverage, we are quite naturally driven to follow a Darwinian process of elimination. This leads the business of sports coverage to become as competitive as the world of sport.

Without question, video has killed the radio star. One could argue that radio is still useful while driving or when in very remote/low income areas that have extremely limited access to television or the digital world. But, really, if a sports fan has access to moving images, he or she will take it. As a consequence, with each picture able to speak, proverbially, a thousand words, the importance of accompanying verbal communication should have diminished. It hasn’t. In fact, it has led to a necessary re-evaluation and improvement of skills in order to avoid becoming redundant.

Over the years, I have been asked with unfailing regularity, “what are the skills required to become a good commentator?” Across radio, TV and digital media, the requirements are significantly different. But one aspect is constant. LANGUAGE. It is the primary, single most important tool of our trade. As it also is, indeed, for everyone in the business of communication. So my answer to the question above is usually quantitative. Out of 100 units that make a top level, world class commentator, 50 units=in-depth knowledge of the subject (in my case, sport), with all its subtleties and nuances; 45 units = in-depth knowledge of the language; 5 units = quality of voice, physical presence, grooming, styling and all the rest of the fluff.

If you don’t have deep knowledge of your subject and if you haven’t done the requisite homework, it is best you do not speak. The average sports aficionado, leave alone the connoisseur, will know within ten seconds whether you belong, or are an imposter. But what almost always startles people is the 45 units I allocate to language. As most will acknowledge, each language is like a vast, limitless ocean. Vocabulary, phraseology, grammar, nuances, colloquial terms… add to which, relevant sporting terminology… add to which, the giant killer, pronunciation. Throw in a sense of humour, turn of phrase, sense of occasion, lightning response, repartee and much more…all of this will give you an idea of the range of skills required within every language.

At this stage, most people begin introspecting and the honest generally admit to the realisation that they have a long way to go. What next? Simple. Just like any other skill, the knowledge and usage of language too can be improved. By listening, reading and, most of all, rehearsing. In the early 80s – soon after making my television presentation and commentary debut with the 1982 Asian Games – my office driver at the time was clearly baffled by this passenger who kept muttering to himself in the backseat, while on long drives into the North Indian countryside. I knew I was getting strange looks through the rear view mirror, but I kept at it – testing the use of relevant terms, phrases, pronunciation…rehearsing before the next assignment. A habit that I have not yet been able to shake off.

Radio commentators have always had it tougher since there is no picture or graphic or any other aid to prompt them. There is some action or spectator sound (called international sound in our parlance), but the listener has only one source of information. So, commentators had to not only describe the action but also the setting, atmosphere and every other detail they could observe. Obviously, language was the only bridge. It had to be rock solid. However, radio commentators could easily get away with (unintended, surely?) inaccuracies. Listeners had no way of knowing if they got a description, name, figure or any other detail wrong. Flow or fluency was key and the quality of voice, pitch, inflection went a long way in pleasing the listener.

Television required a sea change in approach. The pictures left very little to the imagination. Over time, in this technology driven industry, production values, camera work, slow motion replays, close-ups, graphics and other tools have made sports viewing a huge pleasure. Commentary became less voluminous, but was forced to become more accurate. Analysis over description. Conversation among friends, rather than monologue. Brevity became the new mantra and quality commentary meant enhancing the visuals. We are constantly reminded: Less is More. Historical perspective and anecdotes are needed only to fill in the gaps, lest they interfere with the pictures. In fact, commentators are often reminded by directors to stick to the pictures being shown on the TV monitor. On ground commentators do occasionally make the error of talking about some off-camera incident, which could annoy the viewer who only has on-screen images as reference.

Another important aspect of being a good commentator is to have a certain identifiable style. This must be unique and genuine. Originality is key. Imitators are easily found out and not appreciated. Most people have a specific personality. It is best, and ultimately most rewarding, to stay in character. This is why different commentators are appreciated for different attributes – ranging from the extremely loquacious to ones who thrive on brevity, and everything in between. There are generalisations as well. Very loud, in your face, extremely descriptive, argumentative, non-stop=American style. Quiet, minimalistic, formal, dry with British style. Much more casual, informal, critical=Australian. Indian? Just like our country, all our welcome!

Gestures, action and posture apart, we primarily communicate through language. Whether it is in the world of sport, your workplace, a social gathering, or anything in between, a greater command over the language of your choice is extremely important. Because ultimately, the purpose is to communicate accurately. The larger your vocabulary and the better your choice of words, the more accurate the communication. If you are in the business of communication, make language your best friend.

Charu Sharma is an Indian commentator, compere and quizmaster.