Put Some Teeth Into Your Sound Bites

Put Some Teeth Into Your Sound Bites


The art of concise communications is maybe more important when you’re not on TV.

“Ask not what your county can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

“We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

Sound bites like these have become an almost-instant part of our culture. And in spite of the fact that John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, and Johnny Cochrane said a great deal more before and after these famous statements, these are what we remember most.

Most of us worry that we live in a sound bite era—that a quick phrase, right or wrong, can be transmitted almost instantly around the world and have immediate impact.  But even though technology has made things faster, one thing really hasn’t changed:

We’ve always lived in a sound bite era.

“Let them eat cake,” and “Give me liberty or give me death” were uttered hundreds of years before the first electrons were harnessed for communications.  But they endure today, and they spread like wildfire, mouth to mouth, in their time.  James Boswell made a fine living by traveling around with Dr. Samuel Johnson and recording his quotes and quips in the 18thcentury.  In the advertising business, David Ogilvy still lives through “Ogilvyisms” such as “The consumer is not a moron; she is your wife.”

Our minds process information in ways to make it convenient and accessible.  The cleverness or uniqueness of sound bites make it easy for us to categorize and recall them.  The electronic media era has intensified this because this is how reporters think:  they have limited time or space, so they try to focus on a core message, right or wrong, from a longer interview.

We can’t remember all of 1,392 words of Kennedy’s inaugural address, but we can take away and apply that single, powerful quote.

We tend to think of sound bites as just comments from radio or TV (hence the name), but there is tremendous communications power in remembering that they can apply to any communications situation.  What’s the one thing you want your people to take away from a Monday morning staff meeting?  What’s the core philosophy of your company that you’d want every employee to recite off the cuff?  Mission statements are typically forgotten or ignored five minutes after they’re written.  But, again borrowing from David Ogilvy, it’s hard not to remember his agency’s purpose:  “We sell or else.”

The ability to be quotable is a God-given talent, and not everyone can pull a memorable sound bite out of the blue.  But there is a method to the process.  Good communicators use this to make sure they’re heard and understood:

1.  Know what you want to say.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but a surprising percentage of people miss the mark.  What do you want to accomplish?  Better yet, what’s possible to accomplish?  Be sure your message is realistic and on target.  If you’re rolling out your latest widget, don’t worry about the company’s 100 year history.  Good communicators may spend weeks distilling down this message to its essence.  In fact, we spend a lot of time helping in this process.

2.  Keep the message simple.

Sound bites distill big messages down to a single statement.  Words are conversational and human.  Which is better:  “We want to eliminate the technology gap between us and the third world,” or “Every child should have a computer to learn from?”

3.  Use cultural or current references when possible and appropriate.

A topic somebody already understands makes your message more memorable:  “This manual will never make Oprah’s book club, but it will make your job easier.”

4.  Keep your message on target.  Then, keep your message on target.

A lot of forgettable statements become sound bite worthy because the speaker keeps attention focused on them.  Johnny Cochrane knew that the one thing jurors saw for themselves was that the glove was tight on O.J.’s hand.  He then repeatedly raised the questions about whether or not the rest of the evidence was a fit.  By the time he was done, his sound bite was the only thing that mattered.

Watch any good politician on TV.  He or she knows that just one message can be conveyed during a 30 second interview.  More importantly, he or she knows which message NEEDS to be conveyed.  It doesn’t matter what the reporter asks.   If the question’s about schools and the politician wants to talk about health care, a simple phrase like “what’s important to remember” or “let me put this into perspective” shifts the conversation back to what the speaker really wants to say.

These are techniques that can be applied in plenty of off-camera situations.  Have an employee who doesn’t meet goals but keeps obsessing about what’s not important?  Bring him or her back to reality.  Need to convince customers that your product’s reliability save bottom line money?  Present the numbers and stay on the message.

Not every strong communications message becomes a sound bite, but concise, important message can be much more effective even if it never becomes quotable.  Just follow the same principles that good communicators use to build quotes and catch-phrases.