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Why auctioneers talk fast, explained by the world champ

Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

The fast-talking style that auctioneers use has a name: They call it "the chant." Or, in the words of Livestock Marketing Association world champion Brandon Neely, it's "rhythmatic poetry with numbers."

But why do auctioneers talk so fast in the first place?

In a recent phone interview, Neely told me why they talk that way, what auctioneers really do, and how he became the world champion.

Why auctioneers talk funny

Brandon Neely at the block

Brandon Neely at the block.

Livestock Marketing Association

The chant of a livestock auctioneer is part functional and part psychological. "It's the perception of an auction that you can sell items in a rapid manner," Neely says.

"The speed that sounds fast is not that fast," he continues. "If you dissect an auctioneer's chant and you take out all the filler words, you'd just have 1, 2, 3, 4, 5."

Livestock marketers promote auctions as the best way to move inventory quickly. A good auctioneer does that, and the rapid style of the chant sets a fast pace. When Neely demonstrated his chant over the phone, I felt my foot tapping — a good auctioneer can be as propulsive as a dance beat — and that motivates potential buyers to keep bidding.

The filler words between bids keep the unique rhythm going. Neely said a few common ones are "all right," "how many dollars there," and "what do you want to get for 'em."

The auctioneer will then break and compress those words, transforming full phrases into humming compounds like "whatiwannagive" or "nowadollar." The most common filler phrase is probably "dollar bidder now, two dollar bidder now," and so on. Over time, the words blur together and keep the bidding going. It can sound like gibberish to an untrained listener, but it's important to keep the auction fast-paced.

Over the phone, Neely was able to insert these filler words so quickly that I was amazed to learn he didn't play an instrument. It's easy to see why auctioneers regard their own chants as a kind of metronomic art form.

Different auctioneers have different styles that can be affected by region, personality, or simple voice quality. One thing unites the best, however: "They're all clear," Neely says.

But to focus on the chant alone misses a lot of what livestock auctioneers really do.

How to run an auction — it's not just talking fast

A panorama of the 2015 championships

A panorama of the 2015 championships.

LMA on Facebook

First, the auctioneer identifies what he or she is selling. If it's livestock, there are a few key factors, like the weight, sex, and health of the cattle (including vaccinations). And for livestock, the auctioneer often picks the price at which to start the bidding. A good auctioneer is clear but not pushy.

"A lot of the time, you'll recognize the farm and seller, and if it's naturally raised," Neely says. "You'd say whether they've been weaned or not. Then you get to work."

The auctioneer has to increase the bidding while seamlessly recognizing bidders. Because a livestock auction may have a mix of experienced and inexperienced buyers, bidding signals vary. Sometimes a bidder raises a hand, and sometimes, Neely says, "we catch bidders by the wink of an eye."

Occasionally, that's a challenge. "Yesterday at an auction," Neely says, "I was selling, and I had a lady with a piece of paper and she was fanning herself. I saw the signal and caught her out of the corner of my eye and thought she was bidding."

Usually, an auctioneer will wave to people to check that they're really bidding, not just scratching their nose — but mistakes do happen.

Managing all that, however, is just the beginning of what it takes to be the best livestock auctioneer in the world.

How you become a world champion for selling livestock

Neely, 29, was born and raised on a West Virginia family farm, going to livestock auctions as a child. He loved it from the beginning. "We used to play cattle auction with my cousins," he says. By 12 or 13, he was riding along to cattle auctions a few days a week, and at 15 he got his first job.

Neely, who now lives in Southside, Alabama, has now been an auctioneer for 14 years, traveling around the country selling swine, sheep, goats, and cattle. He's also sold horses and cars.

The world championship is so tough that Neely competed for nine years before he won in June 2015. Thirty auctioneers compete at the Livestock Marketing Association's world championship, held in varying locations every year, where they compete for prizes (like a new truck) and glory (including the @WLAChampion Twitter account).

Judges evaluate the 30 auctioneers on their livestock knowledge during an interview, as well as on their performance in a real auction, including bid-catching ability (noticing all those signals), clarity of chant, voice quality, and overall knowledge.

Good auctioneers are a lot different from a pushy salesperson: Their art is about efficiency and clarity, and the chant is less like sales pressure than like luring you into a trance.

Throughout our conversation, Neely was so plainspoken and humble that it was hard to remember he was one of the world's best salesmen. Still, when I asked for meat recommendations from this livestock expert, he gave an enthusiastic case for a good Delmonico, a bone-in rib eye, or even a hamburger. No chant was necessary: I was salivating already.

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