Auctioneers Test Verbal Mettle At Contest

At the National Auctioneer Championships in Spokane, Wash., we find out just what makes a winning auctioneer.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. If you're a professional auctioneer, you know today is a big day. It's the day this year's international auctioneer champions are crowned. Fifty-seven men and 23 women are competing in Spokane, Washington, at the auctioneers' annual convention. And NPR's Martin Kaste got a few of them to slow down enough to explain why they talk so darn fast.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: At the Spokane Convention Center today, it's not unusual to catch auctioneers muttering to themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUCTION CHANT)

KASTE: Some wander around as they warm up. Others stand off in a corner, facing the wall as they practice their chants. And you have to warm up if you want to sound this nimble.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUCTION CHANT)

KASTE: But you got to wonder, what are they saying? All those words in the middle, between the numbers, the pros call them - no surprise here - filler words.

SCOTT MIHALIC: Mine is will you give?

KASTE: Scott Mihalic is a competitor from Chardon, Ohio.

MIHALIC: Will you give?

KASTE: That was in there: Will you give, will you give?

MIHALIC: Right. Will you give, like will you give two, will you give two...

(SOUNDBITE OF AUCTION CHANT)

MIHALIC: All I said is will you give and the number.

KASTE: Mihalic says the choice of filler words is a matter of personal style and sometimes the inspiration of the moment.

MIHALIC: Will you make it? Will you go? I'll say dollar down, able to buy them, like...

(SOUNDBITE OF AUCTION CHANT)

MIHALIC: ...like, hey, will you give 10? Will you give a dollar down, able to buy them?

(SOUNDBITE OF AUCTION CHANT)

MIHALIC: It's just that it's how you roll with it, but it kind of flows for some people.

EMILY WEARS: It's whatever works for you.

KASTE: Emily Wears is a 22-year-old up-and-comer and part of a new wave of female auctioneers that's challenging what she calls the stereotype of the fast-talking old man in cowboy boots. Her dad is an auctioneer, and she grew up listening to the chants, something she compares to music.

WEARS: Some auctioneers, I can't stand to listen to. I can listen to them for five minutes. But the other people, I'm like...

(LAUGHTER)

WEARS: ...can you just keep going forever? I could seriously just sit and listen to you all day long.

KASTE: And to the trained ear, auction chants are also a subtle form of communication. They have a kind of subcarrier signal with messages for those in the know.

WEARS: I'll be in the - across the hall from my dad, and he'll be selling, and he can say something to me in the middle of the chant - Emily, come over here - and never skip a beat, and no one will hear it.

KASTE: Kevin Teets, an auctioneer from West Virginia, says he regularly communicates with his staff this way, say, when his throat is getting dry.

KEVIN TEETS: Yeah. Like if I was selling...

(SOUNDBITE OF AUCTION CHANT)

TEETS: I'm slowing it down, of course.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let's do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUCTION CHANT)

TEETS: They would still understand that's what I'm looking for.

KASTE: Another thing trained ears can recognize: what kind of auctioneer they're hearing.

TEETS: I can listen to an auctioneer and say, oh, he sells cattle, or even listen to an auctioneer and say, oh, he sells cars full time.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUCTION CHANT)

KASTE: And at today's competition, you'll hear all the styles. Cattle chants are fast. Real estate and benefit auctions are slower, more entertaining. Letitia Fry from Scottsdale, Arizona, says most good auctioneers have more than one pitching style.

LETITIA FRY: This morning, I chose my benefit chant, which is much slower. It's a little more animated. It might not be what I choose this evening if I make the finals.

KASTE: Tonight, the best of the best will be presented with three products to sell - really sell - to a crowd of fellow auctioneers, the cognoscenti, if you will. For them, Fry says, she's saving her fastest stuff. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Spokane.

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