There are people who think saying that someone “speaks in sound bites” is insulting them. I actually
think it is a great compliment. It means they are concise, direct, and linguistically interesting. Being able
to speak in sound bites is not an easy task. Very few are gifted with the ability. The rest of us have to
Let’s start off with what a sound bite is. Dictionary.com defines it as “a short extract from a recorded
interview, chosen for its pungency or appropriateness.” Okay, that’s fine, but that’s only half the story.
That definition is very reporter based, and assumes that a reporter will always select the quote you want
them to choose. For our purposes let’s define a sound bite as a statement that includes your pertinent
points, frames you in a good light, and does not open the door to further questions.
That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Oh, and did I mention that should be under 15 seconds?
That’s right, 15 seconds. And that’s being generous. Most reporters and producers will always go for the
shortest length of sound available to tell the story. You need your sound bite to be as short, simple, and
perfect as possible.
So, what is a perfect sound bite? There are people who will tell you to use analogies, rhetorical
questions, metaphors, and the “rule of threes” to craft a great sound bite. However, today all of those
things are party tricks that will have you looking like a shill rather than an expert. Reporters can spot
these gimmicks a mile away and will avoid them at all costs. Oh, unless such tricks make you look foolish
and that’s what the reporter wants to do. Then they will not only go in the story, but also will be the
sound in all the promos.
Know Your Point
The perfect soundbite starts by knowing exactly the point you want to make. I recommend writing it
out, word for word, so that you always have it in front you for reference. Once you know the main point
you can begin working on the best way to phrase it. You can start from a paragraph length and whittle it
Keep it Simple
Never say in 20 words what you can say in five. If your point is “Get a flu shot, it can save your life,” then
say just that. Yes, most messages are not that simple, but try to distill them down as much as possible.
Remember that no one is listening in for a lecture on this subject, they just want to hear the basics. Also
remember that most television is written for someone with an eighth-grade education.
Use Good Grammar
You should sound like you have more than an eighth-grade education. No, you don’t have to pull out
your thesaurus, but you should use good grammar. Make sure you are speaking in full sentences, and
always use proper English. The word is “yes” not “yeah.”
The best way to remember your soundbite, and to make it seem honest is to make it as honest as
possible. Yes, there are certain things you don’t want people to know. These can be written off as
exclusions due to time limitation. You are presenting facts from a certain angle so you only have enough
time to get in the information you know is the most important.
Don’t Leave Question Marks
While you may be omitting certain information from your statement, you do not want to make it
obvious enough that people will come up with questioning conclusions, or want to turn to their friend
Google. Instead, craft your sound bite so that it is the definitive word on the subject at hand. This is
especially important when speaking in a crisis situation. We’ll talk about that more later.
As with anything in life, practice makes perfect. Before you deliver a sound bite, make sure you have
rehearsed several times. That way you will know your point, you will know how to drive it home, and it
won’t sound like it is something you are reading off a cue card. Even if you only have a short amount of
time before speaking to a reporter, be sure to run through your statement at least a couple of times.
Andy Warhol said that every person would have fifteen minutes of fame. The perfect sound bite is your
first 15 seconds. The more of these “snippets” you deliver, the better you will get. Pretty soon you, too,
could be one of those who be speaks in sound bites.