Now days it’s not unusual for purebred breeders to offer 500 bulls in a sale but when I started working bull sales 46 years ago a typical sale might offer 60 or 70 bulls and it would take almost as long to sell them as it does 500 head today. The reason it took so long was because the sale managers and auctioneers would make long speeches about nearly every bull in the sale. They’d prattle, harangue, preach, and babble on about some dwarf relative five generations removed from the inferior bull in the ring and they put a lot of fire into these speeches. Instead, most of their speeches should have been put IN the fire.
Horse sales were even worse. I worked a lot of them and we’d average selling about ten head per hour and if we sold 12 it was considered a blistering pace. Most of the horse sales I worked were for Dean Parker and Thane Lancaster, two of the best that ever lived. Thane had an encyclopedic knowledge of horses and Dean was one of the best horse auctioneers I’ve ever heard. His speeches were real stem winders and if he’d had chosen to be a preacher instead of an auctioneer I have no doubt he’d have been bigger than Billy Graham.
If an auctioneer or sale manager had a reputation as being fairly knowledgeable there might be a flurry of bidding after a long speech but just as often all this speechifying didn’t result in an advance of the bid. It’s like the story Mark Twain told about being so inspired by a preacher’s sermon and he was ready to put $400 in the collection plate, but the preacher kept on droning and Mark changed his assessment of the remarks to $300, then $200, then $100 and by the time the preacher concluded his remarks Mark stole 10 cents out of the collection plate.
It wasn’t just auctioneers, sale managers and preachers who were more long-winded back then. It was quite common for a President’s state of the union address to take two hours of good TV time which prompted Will Rogers to comment, “It’s oratory that’s killing this country.”
Oratory has also killed some auctioneer’s careers. That’s why I always advised young auctioneers if they were going to give a speech that they pull up a little short when there was still some bidding left to be done because nothing looks worse than to stop a sale, make a big speech and then have no one bid.
Finally, someone realized that all these speeches were just killing the momentum, which is the best selling point of an auction in the first place. So now days it’s not unusual to see 40,000 head of cattle sell in one day at a video auction, or 500 bulls. Any speeches given at these affairs are like a woman’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject but short enough to be interesting.
For 20 years I was the announcer for a video company that sold about 400,000 head of cattle a year in the west. With satellite time costing $2,000 to $3,000 an hour it was important not to dilly dally around. Any speeches given were more for the benefit of the consignor than they were for the buyers. If we had a consignor that was hard to please I might lay it on a little thick but I don’t know if it made the cattle fetch more because the buyers knew more about how the cattle would perform on grass, in a feedlot or on the rail than any of the sale crew, or even the consignor.
I learned to keep my mouth shut the hard way. Once I went to the back of the big convention hall to catch my breath and take a discreet rest from announcing. I could hear a couple grizzled ranchers talking at a neighboring table and they were discussing the pace of the auction. The fellow who took my place announcing kept the beginning and end of any speeches he gave very close together which the men appreciated. I could hear one rancher say to the other, “Yeah that other guy (meaning me) sure does know a lot of big words that he should have left at home in the dictionary.”