Sound Bites Are Smart
Try to think clearly and write well. Leave the sound bite to God.
– Peggy Noonan, Simply Speaking.
Meaningless short phrases that feel cooked up by committee to spark a response are awful. Short, powerful speech that comes from considered thinking is not. An effective sound bite is the result of hard work.
Brevity comes from hard work. We’ve heard versions of President Wilson’s take on being concise:
If it is a ten-minute speech it takes me all of two weeks to prepare it;
if it is a half-hour speech it takes me a week;
if I can talk as long as I want to it requires no preparation at all. I am ready now.
Peggy Noonan’s 1998 book Simply Speaking has a chapter called “Gimme One of Those Sound Bite Things”. Peggy herself is clear and direct on this topic. I will quote her because she is convincing.
“Gentlemen may cry peace, peace, but there is no peace.”
“With malice toward none, with charity for all….”
“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself”
They were all created-–they came to live in history– because their writers weren’t trying to write “a sound bite” or “a line”. They weren’t trying to self-consciously fashion a phrase that would grab the listener. They were simply trying to capture in words the essence of the thought they wished to communicate.
You can’t craft a sound bite for its own sake. It has to emerge from the logic of what you want to say. Once you are true to that logic, the “sound bite” will be there if you put in the work.
How do you do this? One approach to try is in the next post on Tito’s Vodka.