INTOUCH – Comment on the art of the sound bite

If you’ve ever been approached to take part in media interview on behalf of your company or organisation, presumably you’ve put some time and thought into what you’ve wanted to say. After all, expecting to front up on national television or radio and just “wing it” makes no sense, from personal or business point of view.
You would never do that when presenting or talking to investors, your bankers, your staff or your board. So why would you put your reputation at risk with external audiences?
However, there is downside to all this preparedness, and one that goes to the heart of good communication. Excessive caution, overworked messages and defaulting to generic corporate jargon all contribute to interviews that are simply… boring.
We’ve all heard them. Bland, pedestrian, meaningless comments that go in one ear and out the other; auricular wallpaper that says nothing and conveys even less.
In the media business, comment that is engaging, attention grabbing and succinctly put is called sound bite. It’s few words or phrase that neatly sums up situation in way that is memorable, moving, or both.
The world’s greatest communicators do sound bites brilliantly. Who isn’t affected by the soaring promise and hope of Martin Luther King’s “I have dream”; the steady determination and calm defiance of Winston Churchill’s vow to “fight them on the beaches” or Kennedy’s eternal challenge “Ask not what your country can do for you…”?
Sadly most of the truly great communicators are dead, and there are not exactly hordes of people lining up to take their place. How many politicians or business leaders today say things that are truly memorable – things that are so beautifully or vividly put that the words echo around the world?
Where are the modern-day equivalents of Churchill, Kennedy and Luther King? When did you last hear or read something that rose above the banal inanity of much of today’s communication to touch your heart, inspire, challenge or engage you?
There are few international examples that spring to mind. Consider this one from billionaire businessman Warren Buffett: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked” – colourful quote that could be applied to number of our finance companies at the moment.
Or, as we head toward the election, this from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair: “Power without principle is barren, but principle without power is futile.”
In recent weeks, there has also been one notable local example. quote lifted from Sir Edmund Hillary’s book Nothing Venture, Nothing Win, which various members of the media have picked up on and included in their reports: “…for what can surpass tear on your departure, joy on your return, and trusting hand in yours?”
Lovely.
But examples like this are few and far between. So as we gird our loins for the rhetoric, point scoring and political debate that makes up any election year, here’s heartfelt plea to our business leaders and politicians: let’s put bit more effort into the art of the original sound bite.
Let’s determine to never again use clichéd, hackneyed and thrashed to death phrases such as “tall poppy syndrome”, “number eight fencing wire” or “put up or shut up”. They may have momentarily captured the nation’s imagination but they just don’t have the linguistic stamina to stand the test of time.
Why not take wee risk now and then? Add bit of colour, celebrate the English language in all its rich and varied glory, soar above the humdrum, meaningless waffle of super-safe business speak, and develop sound bites that are interesting, inspiring and rewarding for the listener or viewer.
You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. Because there’s nothing as enduring as good story well told.

Sue Milne is partner with Senate Communications Counsel.
www.senatecommunications.co.nz

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