What Mike Emrick can teach you about language and journalism

An excerpt of my latest column for Poynter.org. One of the more enjoyable column I’ve done in my years of covering sports media.

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At the top of our interview, I told Mike Emrick I felt that the premium on writing has diminished in the 140-character new media age. He shares the same concerns.

“Words are the hammers and nails to build a sentence,” Emrick said. “You probably talk to young people about the value of putting together a good sentence, even a spoken one. This will sound like an old guy talking, but it is sort of a lost art.”

Emrick then told a story he heard while sitting next to a job recruiter on a plane.

“He said he talked to a young lady from Haddonfield, N.J. who ‘blew me away,’” Emrick said. “He said, ‘I asked myself why? She put together a good sentence; she made eye contact; and she had a good hand shake. I’m thinking why is that unusual?’ But he added, ‘Today, that’s unusual.’”

Emrick obviously has some natural talent, but he also needed to build a foundation. Looking back, he said it came from reading at a young age.

The short version is that Emrick recommends reading as the best method to improve writing and verbal skills. Naturally, though, he puts it in a much more colorful way.

“Reading is the No. 1 thing that builds vocabulary,” Emrick said. “Read the fun stuff, but also read something with more than a couple syllables. It’s fine to enjoy a milk shake, but also eat a good salad now and then. The milk shake may be fun, but you also need to do something that’s good for yourself.”

Emrick also talked about the importance of learning from role models in the business. In his case, it started by listening to Bob Chase, a minor league hockey announcer in Ft. Wayne who still is calling games at the age of 89. Richard Deitsch of SI.com did a story on Chase this week.

“He is so good at formulating sentences,” Emrick said. “Hearing the King’s English come out over the radio at a young age was very helpful to me.”

Later, Emrick had the good fortune of spending time with Ernie Harwell, the long-time voice of the Detroit Tigers, while researching his Ph.D dissertation. He saw how legendary announcers like Harwell and Scully use stories to connect with their audience. Emrick is big on stories, as he always tries to incorporate a few in his calls.

“I usually have five minutes of material that I have to whack down to 20 seconds,” Emrick said. “But I think the stories are the most lasting. When I listen to someone speak, usually once a week on Sunday, it is the stories that I remember. The stories are far greater than statistics. Stats are here today, gone tomorrow. I remember stories from 20-25 years ago.”

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