Commentating: How hard can it be…

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I know a lot of British F1 fans get irritated by ITV commentator James Allen. I’ve never been a big fan either but I’ve tried not to get too drawn into the Allen-bashing because, much like when it comes to discussing the talents of F1 drivers, I’ve never done it so I don’t feel I can criticise too much.

But that’s going to change tomorrow when I pick up the microphone for the first time at Silverstone, home of the British Grand Prix. After all, how hard can it be…

Tomorrow I’ll be joining F1 Fanatic columnist Ben Evans commentating on qualifying and races at the BRSCC event at Silverstone. I’ve not got any delusions of grandeur about this – it’s not going to be an enormous crowd – so it’s a good chance for me to find out just what it’s like to commentate on live racing.

For eight hours.

Yep, we start talking at 9am and, apart from a lunch break, continue right on through until some time between five and six, depending how many crashes there are. That’s seven qualifying sessions and seven races.

I met Murray Walker last year and asked him how hard commentating live was. This is what he said:

It is a lot harder than people think it is – any job that is done well appears easy – it’s when you try to do it yourself you realise it’s not as easy as you thought it was. You’re looking at one television screen – the same one that the viewers at home seen. Most people think you’re looking at a bank of televisions all over the track – you’re not!

I’m really looking forward to it and I hope I at least do a semi-respectable job. But if anyone has any tips I’m all ears…

Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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18 comments on “Commentating: How hard can it be…”

  1. My fianceé always picks on me for how I say the exact same thing about 3 seconds before the SpeedTV commentators do.  Word-for-word.

    I am always impressed with how quickly they can identify a car flashing through the screen.  I’ve been watching a while, and I still have trouble distinguishing which driver is which for certain teams.  You will need to study beforehand which cars are which and pronunciations of each driver’s name and team.

    One thing I would advise you to be wary of… consider your audience.  You need to be accurate and not condescending(or your technical audience will be put off), but not use too much jargon (or your non-technical audience will be put off).  Given your experience, you’re probably more likely to use too much jargon – remember the audience who attends/views a race is not the same one who goes on the web & reads about them.

  2. Keith, Here in Brazil, we have Galvão Bueno, our James Allen. Everybody loves to hate him! Bueno, if you can believe me, is much more annoying than James Allen, whose I can guarantee to you, at least have a better technical background than Bueno. Piquet, always him, said once that he really respect, Bueno: “He must to fill that two hours with something. So he talks and talks and sometimes he will say some rubbish…” Considering the time you will be commenting live, my advice is: take care with Piquet´s comment about the commentator… Good luck!….. ;)

  3. Commentating is something that I’d love to have a go at, but at the same time I’d be pensive because I know I’d make a hash of it! Good luck tomorrow Keith!

  4. Becken and Keith:

    Galvão Bueno is really funny, because, at the same time as he praises himself for his vast experience (thirty years so), he doesn’t seem to study anything at all, to read varied sources, to discuss with somebody else what he says and, as Becken said, he severely lacks a technical background… He seems satisfied with some second-hand paddock gossip and updates us with it every race… Reginaldo Leme, his partner, the proper commentator, is much much better than him… (Galvão, in fact, is the narrator)

     I’ve never heard James Allen, so I can’t compare them…

    On the other hand, Galvão is annoyingly patriotic, even though, IMO, his patriotism is sincere… He is the one who keeps saying Massa was unlucky, Barrichello was a victim, etc…

    I’m pretty sure you have what it takes to be a good commentator… good luck!

  5. Keith, CONGRATS!!!
    Always a dream of mine to do commentary for racing (I have done some American College Football commentary).  It’s an interesting spot to be in, my quick suggestions are:

    Don’t drink too much coffee! (hot tea is fine, just don’t be shaking violently due to the caffeine.

    Relax, and work with Ben, feed off what he’s doing. If you’re on the commentary side, come prepared, bring yourself a cheat sheet, when I did American Football (I grew up in it, so it was a little easier) I still called a buddy at a huge sports statistics company and all the info he got me was a great lifesaver. You’ll be on the mic quite a while, so there’s no need to rush (but of course be timely).

    Don’t worry about what your voice sounds like, just be excited and interested and it’ll show. Danny Sullivan announced a few of the F1 races here in the US a few years ago, and he couldn’t have been more boring, less interested, and more in love with his own voice.  He’s a great guy and a brilliant racer,, yet not a good announcer at all (a real shame, his insights were nice).

    Most of all, have fun! (we’ll all be on the couch jealous)

  6. The nearest I’ve got to commentating was when the TV decided not to provide audio and only stuttering, fast-moving black-and-white pictures  of the first 15 minutes of qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix, resulting in me explaining/guessing to my parents what was going on (and being asked how I could tell from the shots that the track was wet when I said Karthikeyan had put in a slow time considering it was dry…)

    My tips, as a result, may not be much use, but here goes:

    – Get a good night’s sleep

    – Describe what you can see. This is a circuit and many of your listeners may not be able to see the circuit TV. Unlike the commentators at Grands Prix, you therefore have an advantage over your listeners.

    – Scotin159’s point about targeting your speech to suit the audience sounds sensible

    – If that doesn’t work, pretend you’re only talking to one person (Murray used this trick at his first commentary, pretending that the only person there was the BBC director, who promptly signed him up to do part-time commentary work…)

    – Bring plenty of fluids – your throat will appreciate it after talking at any length

    – Make sure you have something nice for lunch – that way you can look forward to it if you start getting worried during the morning

    – Try to do a sound check on your equipment before starting if possible, to determine how loud you need to talk

    – Read the programme before starting

    – If you make a mistake, keep talking – if the audience spots it, they will chalk it down to human infallibility and will consider dwelling on errors less forgiveable

    – Be nice to anyone who looks official, or who looks like they fix stuff

    – If it all seems to be going wrong, try not to panic (easier said than done, I suspect…) and try to talk your way out of it. If it helps, remember that Murray Walker commentated on the Monaco Grand Prix for 20 minutes one year despite having no pictures to go on, and if that was solvable, so is anything that goes wrong

    – If in doubt, ask Ben Evans

    – If still in doubt, trust your instincts

  7. By the way, well done for getting to commentate and I hope you enjoy yourself.

  8. Yes, well done, Keith.  Does this mean we can look forward to some great James Allen-bashing from now on?  ;)

  9. Dan Brunell
    12th April 2008, 0:46

    I did some radio work back in the day and help prep my coworkers at my office when they have to appear on radio or TV. I don’t want to barrage you with information but here are some tips. The main thing is to prepare. The more you prepare, the more confident you feel going forward when you go live. Take what you will from the following:

    – Organize… Organize… Organize: Make sure that you have certain things in certain places so you can draw on them in a moments notice. Also, make sure your notes are organized… there is nothing worse then the sound of thirty seconds of paper shuffling for a fact which meaning and timing has already passed by. Cheats sheets are great and a lifesaver. Make sure they are clear and legible.

    Weather proof: If possible, laminate or put in a plastic folder to protect from the elements or the occasional spilled drink. I got caught in a outdoor concert only to have it rain and all the notes I had on the bands on stage washed away.

    – Study in advance. Type down at least two or three interesting facts about each team, driver, the circuit, and the race’ history. Believe me with 8 hours to fill you are going to need it.

    – Go over with the producer, race director, or someone that knows all the names of the drivers and teams. Write it out how to say the name on the cover of your notebook. This way you don’t spend 8 hours calling some Cube-ica instead of Ku-bica.

    – A race like any sporting event is a unfolding story. Pace yourself and follow interesting plot lines as they come up in the race. Don’t burn out all of your research in the first hour.

    – Spend an hour the night before with Ben to go over some of potential story lines in the race and some topics that can be brought up in the broadcast if the race dull.

    -If possible, make sure you have computer with a decent Internet connecting with you to look up facts and figures if you run out or come up to something you forgot to research or expect.

    – Bring a note pad and pen so you and Ben can trade ideas while still on the air.

    – Finally, no food that makes a noise. Something like a banana  is ideal because it doesn’t inhibit you as much as say  anything that is sticky or chewy. (example: chewing gum or hard candy.) Also, stick to water and juices and no soda.

  10. Dan Brunell
    12th April 2008, 0:55

    – Oh yeah. make sure you scout of the location of the nearest bathroom before hand. That way you can Ben can lose a little time as possible.

    – Above all, relax joke around and have fun. Pace yourself, it going to be a long race.

    Good luck and congratulations on the opportunity.

  11. Very cool, have fun and good luck!

  12. In 1990 I brought my M.G. from the USA to the UK to try my hand at the Prescott Hillclimb.  BBC cameras recorded my every move, a video tape I will always cherish but I was in the drivers seat, I KNOW how I drove, it’s nice to hear what others have to say…………..the NARATION is priceless!  Good Luck to you, Keith.  p.s. I finished 3rd in a field of 24

  13. One thing I find annoying about a lot of circuit commentators is that they assume every is watching in the start finish area.  So remember unlike TV not everyone can see what you can see.

    Silverstone is going to be difficult because it is spread over a large area unlike some of the more natural circuits.

    Say what you see.  If all you know is a blue car went up in the air over a red car say that then have a guess at who was involved.  At least that way people know you are guessing.

    Enjoy it.  You are doing it for fun.

  14. I have no experience to give you apart from if you are enjoying anything it can tramsmit itself to to others – so come what may have fun Keith and try and get a wee snippet or two for the blog – we have read youre comments/views – but it may? be nice to hear the man as well

  15. transmit – really sorry there

  16. So how did the commentating go Keith ?

  17. Thanks for asking mate! I’m going to do a post on it later.

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