For insomniacs, rugby fans and those of us known as morning people, listening to ITV’s World Cup Rugby commentator Phil Vickery is a buttock-clenching lesson in Talknormalism. Obviously uncomfortable in his new job, he flips between the banal (“he uses his feet to run”), strained silence (“If the art of commentary is silence, Vickery is its Rembrandt” – The Daily Telegraph), and waffly overtalking (in Vickery’s commentary you don’t play rugby, you “get a game of rugby under your belt”).
Online rugby fans are not content (“truly, truly awful”, “needs to be cattle-prodded”, “master of platitudes”, “cliché-ridden rubbish”, “the worst commentator in the history of sport”, and that’s just the kinder ones). Searching Twitter for the word “Vickery” during an England rugby game is more entertaining than watching the team play.
It can’t be easy to be a commentator but, on the other hand, it’s his job. We might expect a certain level of expertise. This is a surprisingly common problem in British televised sport, where often the guy in the second seat seems to be doing it for a bet. In the last football World Cup Chris Coleman also gave the impression that he was just filling in until the real commentator’s taxi showed up, stringing together every football cliche from “he’s got good touch for a big man” to “you often you see a team concede soon after scoring a goal”, delivered when we’d just seen a team concede soon after scoring a goal.
Expertise in doing something does not guarantee expertise in explaining it to others, but that expertise can be trained, developed, measured and rewarded. This doesn’t just apply to sport.
Last week I spoke at a conference of the Chartered Management Institute to encourage more slavish obedience to my borderline fanaticism. A member of the audience asked how managers should solve the Vickery-Coleman communication problems in their companies. I suggested they start by formally assessing how well those managers speak and write, with compulsory training for the ones who don’t do it well, and rewards for the ones who do. Anecdotally I find that, when I work to help companies with a waffle problem, junior staff are often just copying a Vickery-Coleman boss. We catch waffle from each other like we catch a nasty cold.
Waffle infection could explain the moment towards the end of this weekend’s game when Nick Mullins, Vickery’s co-commentator, informed us that England full back Ben Foden “always has his eyes open, and is always ready to pin back his ears.” I think I remember that torture scene from one of the Saw films:
Maybe Mullins caught a nasty case of platitudes from Vickery. Although, thinking about it, he has always been rubbish too.