The Art of the Sound Bite

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The Art of the Sound Bite

“People don’t really watch television. They listen to it.”

It was Jack Faris, former president of the National Federation of Independent Business and chief fundraiser for the Republican National Committee during Ronald Reagan’s ultimate rise, who first gave me this lasting lesson on the art of the sound bite.

“People don’t really watch television. They listen to it.”

In today’s multi-media-driven world, that’s an important point for communicators to understand. There is intense competition for people’s attention.

How Do You Watch Television?

The next time you’re home, note how you and your family actually “watch” television.

Is this scene familiar? The kids are arguing while someone is making tomorrow’s lunch, reading a magazine, on Facebook or texting a friend… and the television happens to be on too.

For a message to reach and motivate busy people, you have to say something that grabs their attention, cuts through the background noise and makes them ask, “Who’s that?”

If you can get over this hurdle, then you have reached the bonus round in the quest to become a better communicator.

It’s not as easy as it seems. If you have something to say, be sure to make it:

1. Quick

2. Clever

3. Compelling

4. On message

5. Supportive of the overall point you want to drive home

Presidential Recount of 2000: The Postmark from Austin

One of my favorite sound bites came during the 2000 presidential election recount from Florida House Democratic Leader Lois Frankel. I worked with the Florida House Democrats when the leaders of the Florida Legislature called a special session to pick the state’s electors for then Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

On the day the leaders called the session, we were walking to a news conference and I suggested a line to Leader Frankel…

“The only thing missing from the proclamation today was the postmark from Austin, Texas,” Leader Frankel said.

This line was definitely on message as it underscored a key point Democrats were making during the recount: that the Florida Legislature was acting at the behest of the Austin-based Bush campaign.

The message was so simple and biting at the same time. It was a key angle of the story that reporters wanted to write. They ate it up and the quote was widely used.

It’s important to always think grade school, not grad school when developing your key messages.

Tweet-Worthy Sound Bites throughout History

History shows us that some of the best sound bites in history could have been tweets today.

“Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”
Jesus Christ from Luke 6:31

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
President Abraham Lincoln

“The only thing we have to fear is, fear itself.” – President Franklin D. Roosevelt

“Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” – Lou Gehrig

“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” – Mahatma Ghandi

“Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” – President John F. Kennedy

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” – President Ronald Reagan

“Read my lips, no new taxes.” – President George H.W. Bush

“I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you; and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” – President George W. Bush

Keep it Simple

Sometimes, people are tempted to cram complicated data into their key messages. That’s a big mistake. Use data to support your point, but if you cram too many statistics and numbers into your key message, it begins to sound like the adults from a Peanuts cartoon.

Remember to keep it simple.

When it comes time to do an interview with a reporter, be sure to prepare. Write your notes, review them and develop a memorable line that sums up your point. Dress appropriately if you’re doing a television interview. And, by all means, remember the advice former Philadelphia 76ers guard Al Attles to former Boston Celtic Tom “Satch” Sanders: “It’s important to remember, the three B’s: Be brief, brother.”

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