Note: This is a guest post from Marcia Yudkin, author of the new Kindle ebook, The Sound Bite Workbook. I’ve read it, and can tell you it’s a steal at $2.99. You can download it here.
On camera, on the phone or in person, sound bites often make the difference between an interview featured on the evening news or the front page and exchanges with reporters that end up in the waste basket. Unless you’re uncommonly quick-tongued, you need to think up sound bites in advance and toss them into your interview at the appropriate moment.
Everyone in journalism – and the general public too – recognizes a terrific sound bite when they hear it. It grabs the ear and the mind. It sticks in memory because it contains compressed meaning with an element of surprise. A great sound bite is fresh, frisky and fun to repeat.
Here are five techniques for constructing memorable sound bites:
1. Triples: Remember “Veni, vidi, vici” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”) from high school Latin? Or “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” from the Declaration of Independence? Many people do. That’s because the human mind likes threes. Make a list of keywords for your subject matter and look for catchy triplet combinations. For instance, if you’re a financial planner, you could tell a reporter that you “help ordinary people get rich without working on Wall Street, inheriting wealth or marrying a millionaire.”
2. Clever Mnemonic: Some schoolkids remember the structure of our solar system with a little ditty in which the first letter of each word corresponds to a planet: “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Noodles.” Make up an interesting pattern like this for a well-known set of initials, such as “We tell our clients that in our firm, ‘CPA’ stands for ‘Court Prosperity Avidly.’”
3. Unexpected Metaphors: Compare your quest, cause or issue to something familiar, using words that relate the abstraction to a specific, wry situation in real life. On NPR’s Marketplace show recently, I heard Howard Gleckman of the Tax Policy Center say, “It’s as if Republicans and Democrats are planning a trip but they disagree over whether you should start the trip from Buenos Aires or from Greenland.” That’s much more luscious than simply “…start the trip from Point A or Point B” because the geographical disparity of Buenos Aires and Greenland takes a moment to register, then explodes pleasurably in the mind.
4. Contrast, Conflict or Paradox: Advertising tag lines often combine opposites or near-opposites in ironic, attention-getting ways, as in “Our food is fresh. Our customers are spoiled” (online grocer FreshDirect) or “Melts in your mouth, not in your hands” (M&M candy). You can do the same by brainstorming words and ideas for your theme, then looking for contraries like local/national, full/empty, funny/serious, up/down, etc., and building something catchy out of it.
5. Rhymes: We normally associate corny verses with greeting cards or jump-rope chants. But Johnny Cochran’s irresistible courtroom concoction, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” had an undeniably serious impact in a notorious murder case. Muhammad Ali is one public figure who used rhyming to get quoted, explaining his boxing strategy as “I outwit them and then I out-hit them.” You may need to grin as you deliver a rhymed sound bite, and the reporter or talk-show host may groan, but chances are it’ll get passed along.
As Mark Twain (one of the most quoted authors ever) wrote, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” For you, tweaking a rough idea into a tight, bright arrangement of words can turn a so-so sound bite into a sensational one. Pay attention to alliteration (repeated initial letters) and rhythm as you twist your phrase or sentence into its time – and yours – in the limelight.
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