Six Elements of the Ace Sound Bite

Sound bites have been demonized as the scourge of the information society. Journalism based on the sound bite prevents in-depth coverage and results in a poorly informed society, critics say. Blather!

Perhaps that would be true if news were limited to evening television broadcasts. Today’s society, however, has nearly countless opportunities to receive news in print, broadcast and electronic formats. Want more depth than your local evening news can deliver? Then try an all-news channel, your newspaper, news magazine, or computer.

The reporting tool of one medium can’t be held to blame for a poorly informed society. In fact, from the perspective of the news subject, the discipline of the sound bite is an amazingly good tool for honing messages to crystal clarity.

What then are the essential characteristics of a sound bite? Here are six. A sound bite is:

  1. Focused: Expresses the essential point, not the surrounding detail. Gets right to it rather than working up to a point. Good interviewees know their answers are many times (perhaps most times) more important than the reporter’s question. Thus, they focus on the key ingredient of the answer and deliver that first in “response” to a question. They don’t worry that the point won’t be understood without supporting detail, because they know that if the sound bite is good enough, they’ll have the opportunity to provide the additional information.
  2. Succinct: No words are wasted; uses the language with precision. This is about syntax, having a way with words. Some naturally are better at it than others.
  3. Brief: Takes only a few seconds to say it. Achieve points one and two, and you’ll probably be brief, but this point still needs to be made, since brevity is often accepted as the sole characteristic of a sound bite. Besides, novice interviewees often have difficulty finding a good place to stop. Veteran interview subjects, however, know that delivering a focused, succinct answer, then stopping, will invite the interviewer to draw them out. Thus, they not only get the benefit of the sound bite, they gain a substantial measure of control in the interview and keep the discussion headed in the right direction.
  4. Clear: Requires little or no thought or reflection to be understood. Sound bites can be focused, succinct and brief, yet still include technical jargon or other distractions. Those who give good interviews understand that they are addressing people outside of their industry, profession or specialized area. They know that to communicate successfully through the news media they must speak the language of the audience. They must even avoid body language and movement that contradicts their spoken word.
  5. On-Message: Expresses a thought the organization needs communicated. Even those who are experienced at interviewing often trip over this one. Perhaps they become overly confident and fail to prepare adequately. Or maybe they allow themselves to be distracted by an aggressive reporter. Their answers may meet the first four criteria, but they suddenly find themselves talking about irrelevant issues. The interview takes unnecessary twists and turns, and they miss the opportunity to deliver critical messages for the organization.
  6. Memorable makes an impression that is likely to be recalled. Perhaps the most difficult to achieve of all the sound bite characteristics. Everything else is essentially a technical skill that most any interview subject can learn and improve with practice. Making it memorable, however, demands an artistic flair, even a touch of the poetic. But when done properly, it gives the sound bite and the story depth and life.

Also published on Medium.

Matt Heintz

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