The Art of the Sound Bite

by Martin Livingston of Breakthrough Communications

The essential ingredients of any presentation, whether it’s a speech, podcast or media interview, are key messages – those essential points you want your audience to take away from the story.  But giving a presentation or landing an interview means nothing if you don’t have anything memorable to say.  Making your points stick requires coming up with quotable quotes or catchy sound bites that evoke vivid images and engage your audience.

How do you develop a punchy sound bite to support your key message?  By using one or more of the following techniques to bring your points to life:

Analogies and Metaphors : Analogies and metaphors are powerful tools for painting distinctive visual images that stick in someone’s mind.

One of my favourite quotes was coined during the 1987 stock market crash, when one commentator aptly stated “predicting the market bottom was like trying to catch falling knives.”

A BC mining executive interviewed by a Business in Vancouver reporter about the chronic skills shortage facing the industry skilfully made his point with the sound bite: “We’re living on the fumes of our talent from 15 and 20 years ago.”

Lamenting on her lingering fondness for the political arena, B.C. Liberal Leadership candidate Christie Clark told BC Business Magazine that leaving politics was like breaking up with a boyfriend.  “In the first six months after you leave, you still remember the reasons why you left.  And then a couple of years down the road … you’re thinking, God, that guy was great! I miss him so much!’  And you pick up the phone and dial.”

In all cases, the speaker effectively employed an analogy or metaphor as a hook to get their point across.

Bold Action Words: All too often, interview subjects water down the impact of their statement by prefacing their comments with “I think” or “I feel.”  When you talk, be direct.  Use colourful words expressing action and dynamic verbs that paint a picture or express action to get your point across.

Emotion: People respond better to emotion than factual information. One of the best ways of connecting with an audience is by building bridges to their emotions.   U.S. President Barack Obama tugged at the heart strings of Americans during a recent memorial service for victims of the tragic Arizona shooting.  Referring  to nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green, Obama poignantly recounted the innocence of the young victim with the passage:  “If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today.”  Take a page from Obama’s book.  Identify your audience’s emotional  triggers and engage those emotions with anecdotes and colourful sound bites people can relate to, so your words resonate in the hearts and minds of the audience.

Clichés: The much maligned cliché may seem corny, but it has a way of sticking in people’s minds particularly if you add a twist to it.  Commenting on a political opposition party’s internal problems and inability to capitalize on the crisis facing the government in power, one pundit pointed out that the opposition party ” seemed intent on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”

Organizers of the 2011 RBC GranFondo Kelowna cycling event, which followed the highly successful RBC GranFondo Whistler, used a clever twist to the cliché “on the heels of” when announcing the Okanagan event  by proclaiming “On the wheels of the inaugural RBC GranFondo Whistler last month, organizers are now turning their attention to another BC cycling hotbed – Kelowna.”

Numbers: Numbers  are also useful for putting a message in context as long as you convey them in a manner people can relate to.   Telling a reporter that 69,000 Canadians die each year from heart disease just doesn’t have as much impact as  stating “Every seven minute in Canada, someone dies from heart disease or stroke.”

Similarly, most people simply can’t relate to the enormity of “millions” or “billions.”   If you’re talking about large numbers, put it in terms people get, such as “The city generates enough waste each month to fill three football stadiums.”  Numbers can be particularly challenging when discussing technical topics.  If you’re talking about levels of contamination in parts per billion, for instance, follow it with an example that’s easy to grasp such as “That’s the equivalent of adding half a teaspoon of salt into a Olympic size swimming pool.”

Rhetorical Questions: A rhetorical question, posed for its persuasive effect without the expectation of a reply, can also make a strong impression.  An individual talking about the difficulty in getting information from government may state:  “Disclosure of records from City Hall has become glacially slow.  What are they trying to hide? ” which encourages the listener to consider what the obvious answer to the question must be.

While sound bites are useful, don’t overuse them.  Try to state your thoughts in complete self-contained sentences keeping  your key messages simple and succinct. Sparingly sprinkle your interview with catchy sound bites at appropriate junctures to highlight important points.  Practice being sound bite savvy and you’ll spark more life into your presentation and leave a lasting impression with your target audience.

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