This post is a regular, weekly feature by Mr. Huzzah. Who is Mr. Huzzah exactly? Well, he’s my husband and go-to running buddy. A former varsity athlete who went to college and found pizza and beer, he rediscovered his love of working out about 5 years ago. He posts weekly about fitness to give this blog a little testosterone. (Note: these are his opinions, which may or may not be backed by scientific findings. Use at your own risk)
If there’s one thing that drives me up a tree before a race, it’s when a schlocky local celebrity or well-meaning but ill-equipped individual is handed a microphone and tasked with making critical pre-race announcements.
Wait. It dawns on me, given the use of words like “schlocky” and willingness to discuss gripes that you might be confused. “This doesn’t sound like Brigid at all! She’s so positive, and doesn’t write in run-on sentences!” And you’d be correct. By way of introduction, I’m Mr. Huzzah (Brig suggested the pseudonym, and I kind of tolerate it), the person who gets dragged along on such adventures like volunteering before a race we also ran. I also get to be the guinea pig when some marketing outfit sends samples to the house. But more on that some other day. What was I saying? Oh yeah, schlocky race emcees.
We’ve all been there. You’ve taken that critical pre-race bathroom trip, your shoes are tied with the right amount of tension, and you’re ready to head off along an arbitrary line, back towards where you started in many instances. And then you hear it, a garbled mess of syllables that can best be captured by the sound made by the adults that populate Charlie Brown’s universe. You don’t know if it’s even relevant to your current condition, or if perhaps you’ve managed to not make it into corral before the start. Regardless, more often than not these announcements cause more confusion then they create clarity. But don’t worry, I’m here to provide some easy fixes you can hand in written form to the sir or madam stuck dealing with the morning announcements.
But you say, “On what grounds can you hold yourself out as an expert in making amplified announcements to a large group of people?” Fair point. I should provide a narrative CV. I studied broadcasting and mass communications as an undergrad, called a slew of college hockey games, and was an improv comedian. While in law school, I took up being a ring announcer on a lark and have been doing it on and off for the last six years. So yes, I do have experience in talking into a microphone and not sounding like I’m chewing on marbles or covering “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. So here’s my handy-dandy guide to making yourself, or someone you know, sound downright competent when making pre-race announcements.
1. If you don’t have anything salient to say, don’t say anything at all. Too often, your race emcee tends to talk WAY too much. If there’s one thing you don’t want your communications to become, it’s white noise. Yes, there are eight million sponsor plugs to shoehorn in. Yes, you need to name drop the organizing committee and race director who decided you’re qualified to handle this task. But there are a lot of things you can usually skip entirely.
For example, I don’t need to know every two minutes how much time is remaining before I start the slow shuffle from the pokey corral to the starting line. Start the countdown at ten minutes, and assume most of the crowd is wearing a watch or has the social skills to ask someone with a watch what time it is so they can fit in those critical last-minute fluids, fuel, or port-a-john run.
2. As my English teacher used to say: “Make it like a woman’s skirt. Long enough to cover the basics, but short enough to be interesting.” Every time I use this reference, it dawns on me that a teacher probably couldn’t use this example today and not be called on sexual harassment. But it creates a visual frame of reference, and is one of those phrases that sticks with you, so whenever I speak about brevity, I often rely on it as my touchstone (and yes, I know my expositive writing is the opposite of brief, but I tend to be stream-of-consciousness when I write).
Each announcement you make will keep the attention of the average pre-race runner for, oh, 17 seconds. I have no empirical evidence to support this, but I know that my attention wanes fairly quickly, and I’d have to fathom that most other runners are of a similar ilk before skulking off for a run. So when you speak, get to the point. Using the sponsor example, don’t start out by saying “I want to take this opportunity to thank the amazing sponsors of the 2011 Chuckleduck Run-a-Palooza, without whom this event would be slightly less enjoyable in terms of your swag bag and water stations! You should patronize these businesses and companies as a way of thanking them for making a tax deductible contribution to our event!”
I know all of these things already. My event shirt is probably slathered with the respective logos of these companies. So don’t belabor their presence, and don’t sound like a carnival barker. Be grateful, be clear when stating the names of each sponsoring entity, and move on with the morning.
3. The likelihood of causing panic is greater than the likelihood of ensuring calm. You are dealing with a herd of humanity. And while a person is smart, rational, and capable of independent thought, people are sheep. We tend toward the first definitive action taken by any member of the group, and worry about whether it was the right decision later. Bear that groupthink in mind when you have to make a critical announcement: missing child, medical emergency, road hazard, etc. A firm, even tone that states the situation clearly will inform the crowd without getting it into a tizzy. Promise to provide any relevant follow-up information, and follow through so long as it meets the first standard I put here. Whatever you do, as the Hitchhiker’s Guide informs us, DON’T PANIC. Once you panic, things will only go downhill.
Also, don’t speculate. Know what you’re saying is correct and factual. If that means you don’t have much useful information to pass along, that’s fine. But disinformation is worse than saying nothing at all. I realize that the chances of actually having to ride herd over a crowd during an emergency is slight, but I’ve seen it done the wrong way once, and let me tell you: It was a cluster-bumble.
4. Once the gun sounds, don’t be that guy or girl. We just ran a Turkey Day 10K, and the emcee tasked with the job that morning had a pesky habit of sending off the crowd with the same weaksauce salutation as each wave was released. It did NOTHING to pump me up. To the contrary, I spent the first mile wondering if she wouldn’t have benefitted from more caffeine prior to taking the dais. Sometimes you find a race with a competent emcee that has a sweet catchphrase they bellow as you launch into the breach. That makes me want to run through a cinder block wall of flame.
But the other extreme does nothing but deflate an already weary crowd that’s been in transit for some time, often absent enough caffeine to even form complete sentences. So unless you’ve got something so kick-ass up your sleeve it’s registered with the USPTO, a simple phrase will suffice. Examples include: “Have a great race!” “Good luck runners!” Basically, any four-syllable phrase I can turn into a motivational chant will suffice.
5. After the race, I care about three things: fluids, food, and facilities. Yes, there will be some pro forma awards ceremony where we laud the 1% running elite of the community, while the rest of the Clydesdale proletariat shuffles amongst the booths and tries not to make a sweaty spectacle of ourselves. So, as runners being to populate the post-race party area, be sure to emphasize where the 3 F’s of running denouement can be had. Within these announcements, wedge in the awards ceremony and the obligatory intro for the local band that’s been retained to play Jimmy Buffett covers.
Finally, a word about voice amplification. I’ve created a handy guide for deciding how many PAs are needed to effectively communicate the messages you’ve been assigned to deliver. I call it the 2-1K rule. For each 1,000 runners at the start/finish, you should have two PAs to use for announcements. You can certainly double up and use the PAs for music when you’re not speaking to the gathered masses, but make sure your mixer is capable of efficiently handling constant switching between the two sound staples of any race. If you’re a smaller event under 1,000, a megaphone will suffice for announcements. And no, there is no such thing as too loud, just too much feedback. So plan your speaker arrays accordingly.
So there you have it. A handy field guide to race emceeing success. Or failure. Come to think of it, I’ve never tested these points in a live fire scenario. But they sound eminently rationale, and will at least serve to annoy me less as I stare down at my sneakers in a semi-sentient pre-race haze, and that’s all that matters.