Getting to the Essence



Don’t try to craft a sound bite. The sound bite will emerge when you focus on the core of what you want to say.

If this feels a little vague, or like something from a martial arts movie (“to be strong, Grasshopper, you must be weak!”), let’s look at how to actually coax a strong sound bite into being.

I saw Gideon Rose, the Editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, give a talk to young academics and he used Tito’s Vodka to illustrate his message. Tito’s label boasts that it is “distilled six times.” Rose encouraged  his audience to do the same when communicating about their work: distill it and then distill again. (Distillation gets at the essence by removing impurities—the unnecessary modifiers, the ten-cent words, the lists.)

How do you distill? Get someone to ask you questions. Over and over again. That’s where we come in. We force you to talk about your work in a way that breaks you out of the habits that come from creation. We all know what it’s like to re-read a piece we’ve written. We recite it rather than reading it. When you answer questions, the impurities identify themselves. You strip them out and the gems become evident.

We ask questions that get to the crux of your thinking. Is that the most important thing? What is the core of your position? Why does it matter? Try stripping away the caveats and qualifiers; what are you left with? Does it still stand? Can you post it on the refrigerator?

Once you have that, use language to put your core sentiment in its best light through alliteration or familiar speech patterns — if you use the music of language people take home what you say without needing to remember it.

We like visuals. Here’s Noonan again from Simply Speaking, page 95:

Try and take the abstract and make it concrete, as Churchill did when he wanted to talk about how Europe, with many in the West barely noticing, had become, at the end of the war, utterly divided.  He could have simple said that, and it would have been fine. But he wanted to break through to people with an image, he wanted to make them see what he was talking about and so he said “an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”
A great image and a truthful one, and it has lived for fifty years.  
It was also a great sound bite.
But he wasn’t trying to write a sound bite.
He was trying to express a thought.
Which is what writers do.
And what you must do.

Distill your thinking and keep distilling. Answer the hard questions and the sound bite will come to you, clear, potent and concentrated. Like a shot of Tito’s Vodka.