The average human attention span is 8.25 seconds, that’s 4.25 seconds less than in 2000. A product of digital information overload and social media, decreasing attention calls for clear, concise, and compelling communication.
Sound bites can be a solution to make the most of those 8.25 seconds of attention. They are snack-sized, sticky and catchy phrases that encapsulate a message or big idea in a way that is easy to remember and repeat.
While sound bites are a staple of politics, advertising, and media, they can be used effectively in any form of public speaking to engage audiences and cut through distractions. They are shorter than elevator pitches, but they share a singular purpose: to help people remember what you said.
In the digital age, the best sound bite wins. If you speak in bite-sized pieces, you are practicing brain-friendly, bold, and memorable communication that encourages better dialog and understanding.
More than a century ago, Mark Twain endorsed the idea of the conciseness of a sound bite by defining it as a minimum of sound to a maximum of sense. Twain was ahead of his time in many ways.
One of the most famous textbook examples of sound bites is found in John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech: Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country. These words, short and poignant, remain memorable even though they were spoken in 1961 when a standard sound bite lasted 40 seconds.
“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.“John F. Kennedy
Another advantage of sound bites is that they can be used to capture the attention of the media. In today’s media-saturated world, the ability to capture the attention of reporters, news outlets and podcast listeners is essential for getting a message out to a broader audience. Their stickiness and shareable quality make them ideal for social media, too.
Here are seven tips to make sound bites work for you. I’ve included examples from my coaching sessions preparing clients for media interviews:
1. Keep them simple
Make them one to two sentences long. Aim for clarity and everyday language. Use simple words and references that are easy to understand and recall. Use them alone or with a supporting fact.
Our oceans are dying. Half the coral reefs are gone. Millions of tons of plastic waste are a factor.
2. Be authentic
Sound bites that feel forced or inauthentic can backfire. Make sure your sound bites are a true reflection of your message and brand. Avoid cliches and industry jargon.
3. Work the rule of three’s
The rule of three’s is all about crafting ideas in triplets. Brain science tell us that the three-part structure is a proven technique to aid memorization. It is pervasive in advertising and marketing slogans: Beans mean Heinz.
An artist client who promotes art therapy for depression said in her last podcast:
Art opens a door to a safe place to explore, release, and heal.
4. Use metaphors and alliteration
Rhyme, repetition, metaphors, and alliteration make sound bites easier to remember. Reuse, reduce, recycle. Is an example of repetition and alliteration.
Here is another:
You need to tell them once, tell them twice and tell them again to persuade.
Corporate communications expert Ken Hoemer wrote this astute metaphor about public speaking:
Writing a presentation without an audience in mind is like writing a love letter addressed “to whom it may concern.”
5. Apply contrasts
A contrast of ideas is like a jolt to the brain. Contradictions, comparisons, and opposites are techniques that make sound bites resonate long after you have spoken:
I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth, and inexperience, Ronald Reagan famously quipped during the 1984 presidential debates when asked if, at 73, he was too old to be president.
A life coach client of mine said this at a keynote:
Suffering opens the pathway to joy.
And to illustrate the size of a cargo ship stuck in the Suez Canal, an insurance executive said,
The vessel was stuck like a jackknife the size of the Empire State Building.
6. Pause before and after
If you are doing an interview or your talk is being recorded, ensure that the sound bite is not edited out in post-production. Leave a small pause before and after the sound bite phrase. This makes it easier for the producer of the piece to edit around it.
7. Rinse and repeat
Repetition drives home your appeal or call to action. Say your sound bites often. Aim to repeat them at least three times during your talk or interview to emphasize your big idea and earn a place in the minds of your audience.
Keep in mind though that textbook sound bites are just one part of the communication equation. Effective communication is a conversation.
Great sound bites are all around you. Train your ear to listen carefully to how they are constructed and what they convey. What makes you remember them? How can you model your own after their structure? Write them down and repurpose them to elevate our own communication. But remember that as a public speaker, it is important to strike a balance between the attention-grabbing power of sound bites and the substance and depth of your message.