“What in the heck is hemlock?”

More from that Sports Illustrated profile of broadcaster Vin Scully. Writer Tom Verducci says Scully’s “literate, cultured mind” sets him apart. He’s a man of wide-ranging interests, from Broadway musicals to classical civilization. Scully manages to bring that authentic side of himself to an audience of diverse classes and educational levels, people whose interests may lie in a much narrower range.

Perhaps you remember Dennis Miller, another smart person–turned–sports announcer. Miller  flamed out after one season in the booth at Monday Night Football (although this article ranks him as only the sixth-worst announcer in the show’s first 45 years). Football fans hated his references to high culture. What makes one smart person annoying and another, Scully, endearing?

Here’s how Verducci describes Scully’s reaction on Opening Day this year when he noticed that a player named “Socrates Brito” would be taking the field:

The minute he sees the name, Scully thinks, Oh, I can’t let that go! Socrates Brito! Inspired in the way of a rookie broadcaster, Scully dives into his research. So when Brito comes to the plate, Scully tells the story of the imprisonment and death by hemlock of Socrates, the Greek philosopher….

‘But what in the heck is hemlock?’ Scully tells his listeners. ‘For those of you that care at all, it’s of the parsley family, and the juice from that little flower, that poisonous plant, that’s what took Socrates away.’

It’s a perfect example of a device Scully uses to inform without being pedantic. He engages listeners personally and politely with conditionals such as For those of you that care … and In case you were wondering…. Immediately you do care and you do wonder.

Scully isn’t done with Socrates. In the ninth inning, Brito drives in a run with a triple to put Arizona ahead 3–1.

‘Socrates Brito feeds the Dodgers the hemlock.’

I’m always looking for ways to weave new analogies into the writing I do for my clients—analogies that might not be part of their experience, but that wouldn’t seem like they were trying to aggrandize themselves. You never want to put yourself on a higher plane than your audience. “For those of you who care”…”in case you were wondering…” Gentle phrases. I might try them sometime. Thanks, Vin.

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