Sound Bites Don’t Happen by Accident

Sound bites are the lines and phrases we all know. Whether you love them or loathe them, they are the quotes that fill the 24-hour news cycle of our world.  What do they all have in common?  Three things: simple words, easy to repeat and emotional appeal. The truly great ones don’t happen just by accident.  Only the sound bites you regret you ever said happen in a moment-in-time that you wish you could take back and start over…

We all know it’s much easier to be wordy than succinct.  One of the most effective sound bite creators of his day, Mark Twain, says it best, “I would have written you a shorter letter but I didn’t have the time.”

Why are we often so critical of sound bites? We expect too much of them. Their intention is not to convey the details or complexity of an issue. Sound bites are used to persuade, inspire, inform, provoke and sometimes just to make you laugh. They are the one or two sentences that get to the heart of the matter.

Historically, sound bites reflect the current events of our times.  Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death!”  Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!” Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”  And the one we can all quote verbatim, John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country...,” and you can say the rest without missing a beat.  You know it because those words, like many others, created powerful images and feelings.

An effective quote is polished and delivered for maximum impact. How do sound bites get so crisp and pithy?  How do you pack fact, opinion and emotion into one or two sentences?  Whether it’s a broadcast or print interview, your quote, even read aloud, lasts about 10 seconds or less. There’s no magic formula for success. There are clear guidelines that are easier said than done, and it’s all about time.

T-Take the time to practice aloud. 

The only way to be clear and concise is to hear you say it.  If it takes 60 seconds the first time you try it, shorten it to 30 seconds.  Next take it down to what’s really the takeaway message in about 10 seconds.  No one talks the way they write. Make sure it sounds conversational. Did you use simple words with no jargon? 

I-Intention is the key.

What’s your purpose?  Are you looking to educate or persuade?  Do you want to motivate or to entertain?  Being clear on your goal makes it much easier to edit the extra words, statistics or phrases that take away from your point.

M- Make it memorable. 
Try it out on other people who are not as close to the issue as you are.  Ask them. Did you get to the essence of the argument?   Did your words create a powerful image? Can they repeat it back to you?

E- Emotion is everything.

Whether you’re delivering a fact or an opinion, you must express it with passion and clarity.  The words must sound like you, meaning it has to resonate for you as well as for your audience.  Do your words strike a chord with the feelings of the people you want to reach? Slow down and pause when you deliver your sound bite to make it stand out from the rest of your interview. 

Finally, we return to that eternal sage Mark Twain.  Before anyone ever called a quote a sound bite, Twain defined one in his own inimitable way: “A minimum of sound to a maximum of sense.”

This article was excerpted from the forthcoming PR News' 2009 Media Training Guidebook. It was written by Nan Tolbert, an executive communication coatch with the The Communication Center. To order this or any PR News guidebook, visit