In Search of Even Shorter Sound Bites
An interactive segment of the LP&P Executive Communications training workshop we offer is the sound bite exercise. We ask each of the spokespeople being trained to answer a question that they may receive during an interview in 60 seconds or less, and to include a good sound bite. For those not familiar with the term, a sound bite is a statement or turn of phrase that concisely and colorfully sums up the point a spokesperson is trying to make. A good sound bite is something that will be associated with a speaker or will appear under his or her photo in the article.
Typically, when a group is being trained, the sound bite exercise becomes competitive and each new trainee works hard to get to that sound bite even quicker than the last person. Everyone also comments how surprised they are that answering a question for 60 seconds is a lot longer than they expected it to be. Given this experience, I was not surprised at the recent coverage in NPR and the Boston Globe of new research into the shrinking sound bite.
Two journalism professors at the University of Nevada recently wrote an article for the Journalism Studies magazine that measured the evolution of sound bites and printed quotes in the political realm from the late 1880s to the present. Although this has yo-yo'd back and forth a bit over the years for vis-à-vis length, the not-surprising evolution has been toward almost ridiculously short sound bites. During the Bush and Dukakis presidential race, for example, the candidates' televised sound bites averaged 8.5 seconds, according to the two researchers. This mirrored the shorter quotes from candidates -- or reduced number of column inches per candidate -- in printed publications as well. The researchers note that this reduction reflects the more analytical quality of political coverage today. In many ways, the public is waiting for the presentation to end so they can have it concisely interpreted and deciphered by the political analysts and pundits. It should not be a surprise that in the era of Twitter, the public is looking for quick summaries of news and opinion rather than a lengthy amount of material they need to digest and interpret themselves.
What this means in the corporate world is that the speed sound bite exercise is more relevant than ever. Company spokespeople who want to be covered in the press and the blogosphere need to bring compelling news or opinion or trends to the people who interview them if they want to be covered. The quicker, more colorfully and decisively they can make their points, the more likely they will qualify for quotes in the highly coveted space in well read publications or blogs, or the air-time in the broadcast media.
How does a spokesperson learn to speak in short, concise and compelling sound bites? Well, remember the old joke about the person who asked a passerby in NYC how to get to Carnegie Hall? The same answer applies here: Practice.