by Steve Adubato, PhD
Two giants in the New York Yankees world died recently. “The Boss”—George Steinbrenner—whose leadership skills many questioned, but whose results spoke for themselves. But the other, Bob Sheppard, the longtime public address announcer at Yankee Stadium will undoubtedly be remembered as a communication icon.
Sheppard’s voice was something all of us who have ever gone to Yankee Stadium have burned into our memories. So many announcers just don’t stand out. They blend in. They are not special. But, Bob Sheppard took his communication very seriously. It wasn’t just the tone of his voice; it was how important it was to him to get everyone’s name right. There’s a story about Robinson Cano, the Yankees 2nd baseman, coming up with the team in 2005. Sheppard asked him; “Do you prefer Robby or Robinson?” Cano was a bit perplexed and Sheppard proactively told him, “I prefer Robinson.” He was right. Robinson Cano sounds so much better to the ear than Robby Cano.
There is also the case of Jorge Posada, whose name Sheppard got wrong the first time he announced it, calling him “Posado”. According to Posada, later that day Sheppard approached him and asked if he wanted to be introduced as Jorge or George, and whether it was Posada or Posado. Once Posada clarified it for Sheppard, he nailed it every time.
You might think what’s the big deal if you pronounce someone’s name right or not? It’s a HUGE deal in the communication game. Not only would Sheppard annunciate everyone’s name exactly the way it should be said, but he also did the same thing at a fantasy baseball camp for a bunch of middle-age guys who put on Yankee uniforms, including my good friend Robb Sansone, who told me this past week that Sheppard asked every one of the fantasy baseball players exactly how they wanted to be introduced. He took notes and he remembered. He did the same thing for these regular guys as he did for every Yankee.
By doing this, Sheppard was communicating that he cared, that it mattered and that he wanted to get your name right so that you could feel special. Think about how bad it feels when someone mispronounces your name and once you correct him, he does it again. What does that communicate? Obviously, that he DOESN’T care.
Not only was Bob Sheppard the consummate gentleman according to those who knew him, but he was the quintessential professional. There was no detail too small when he would announce professional games for the Yankees or the football Giants or when he did St. John’s basketball games. Sheppard was also a professor of public speaking and speech at St. John’s. He taught others how to find their voice, how to get their words out by taking the time and pronouncing every syllable. With Sheppard, diction mattered. According to Sheppard, who lived to the age of 99, “A public address announcer should be clear, concise, correct. He should not be colorful, cute or comic.”
Sheppard understood that the game wasn’t about him; it was about the players and the game. What a powerful lesson for the rest of us who get consumed by drawing attention to ourselves and by forgetting that the more you make others around you feel good about themselves, the more successful you are likely to be.
This column isn’t about baseball and you don’t have to be a Yankee fan to appreciate it. Rather, it is about the fact that truly great communicators like Bob Sheppard understood that it’s important to “sweat the small stuff” when it comes to how you speak. Details matter. Going the extra step matters. The rest of us can learn some important lessons from the guy Reggie Jackson referred to as the “Voice of God”.