Mastering the Art of Good Sound Bites

Regardless of political leanings, it’s hard to dispute that Donald Trump has mastered the sound bite, and it’s largely why he’s hovering at the top of the polls these days.

Although we would never counsel clients to adhere to Trump’s brand of messaging – after all, a recent New York Times article noted that “Some of [Trump’s] claims, made under oath… are shown to be hyperbolic overstatements, and others to be shadings of the truth or even outright misstatements…” – there are some communications lessons to be learned here.  And those lessons center upon understanding exactly what sound bites are, how to recognize a good one, and how to use them effectively to elevate your cause.

What is a Sound Bite?

A sound bite is a quote that a broadcast or print journalist chooses to elevate within their story to provide a pithy, memorable encapsulation of the issue they are covering.  A quick journey through the history of television news shows just how pithy sound bites have become:  According to a UC San Diego study of network news broadcasts from presidential elections between 1968 and 1988, the average sound bite had declined from 43 seconds (a lifetime by today’s 140-character standards!) to a mere nine seconds.  And that was back in 1992, so it’s safe to say that today’s average sound bite is much shorter; we’d wager that today it averages around five seconds or less.  So, say it succinctly or don’t say it at all.

What Makes a Good Sound Bite?

The definition of a “good” sound bite depends on what you’re trying to achieve as a spokesperson. For Donald Trump, this means constantly funneling reporters those “red meat” quotes that will 1) sell ad space and newspapers and 2) endear him to his target audience:disgruntled conservative voters who express distaste for inside-the-Beltway politics.  A more relevant example might be a quote that successfully answers the “But what does it all mean?” question for an audience on a highly complicated topic.  For example, in commenting on newly positive unemployment statistics released by the Department of Labor: “These numbers tell us that our economy is like a furnace roaring to life.”

How to Use Sound Bites Effectively

So how can you use sound bites to make your message heard? We like to follow three simple rules: 1) Make it short. If it takes too much time to say it or write it, you can bet that a reporter won’t include it. 2) Make it visual. Especially when dealing with complicated or boring (but important) issues, your chances of breaking through to your target audience increase exponentially when they are able to visualize the problem – or solution – at hand. And 3) Make it newsy (though not necessarily controversial). A reporter will likely never use a quote that states the obvious. Instead of wasting valuable words expressing basic facts that reporters can find in the press release, make your comments stick by finding a way to connect your news to the current news cycle.  Good prompting questions can include: What do your actions add to the current conversation on XYZ topic? What can others learn from your position?  Or, what can you say in one sentence or less than might intrigue someone to want to learn more?

Sound bites can be an invaluable tool to help you successfully compete with others amid shrinking newspaper column inches and a saturated 24-hour news cycle. But, before your soundbites start making news for the wrong reasons, take time to think about what you NEED people to hear and find a way to encapsulate that message in 5 seconds or less.

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