Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, famously had this to say when promoting her book, Lean In, about women in the workplace:
“Men still run the world. And I’m not sure that’s going that well.”
Screenwriters use loglines, authors use quotations, advertisers use slogans and politicians….well, let’s just say sound bites bombard us every day in all kinds of formats and from every conceivable medium, and the best ones are such useful communications tools because…
- They cut through the clutter and distill the main point you’re making into something memorable
- They help to drive the audience or reader to the action that you’re compelling them to take
Whether you are speaking or writing, it’s worth your while to take the time to craft something pithy that your audience can take away. And doing so also forces you to clarify and refine your own main ideas to make your writing more effective.
There are lots of techniques and rhetorical devices you are probably already aware of for creating memorable sound bites, but approaching them methodically can help to hone your skills.
• The rule of three: “We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”—Barack Obama, inaugural speech
• Repeating words at the end of a series: “And that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”—Abraham Lincoln at Gettsburg
• Repeating words at the beginning of a series: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
• Contrasts, Conflicts or Paradoxes: “In our community (of artists), tolerance of intolerance is unacceptable.”—John Irving on the Academy Awards
• Rhetorical Questions: “If you can’t get a church van with twelve white folks through (the border), how much worse is it for any person of colour?’- Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale of the Reformed Church of Highland Park, New Jersey
• Similes, Metaphors and Analogies: “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”—Gloria Steinem
• Tweaked Cliches: ”Familiarity breeds contempt—and children.”—Mark Twain
• Unexpected Twists: “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens!”—Woody Allen
•Definitiveness or Power: “Go big or Go home!” –advertising slogan
• Brevity: “Stand up. Speak up. Shut up.”—James Lowther, British MP
• Imitation of a famous phrase: Jane Austen’s “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” might become “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a humdrum speech, delivered in a monotone, will put an audience to sleep.”
As you may have noticed, some of the most memorable sound bites employ more than one of these devices at a time. Repetitions of phrases, whether at the beginning, end or middle of a sentence, typically happen in threes, rhythm and cadence go a long way toward emphasizing contrasts or paradoxes, tweaked clichés are often noticeable for their brevity and punch, etc.
Once you’ve polished and perfected your gem of a phrase, remember not to bury it. If it’s part of an oral presentation, use it for an attention-grabbing opening or a killer closing, and if it’s a visual presentation, get it up on the screen to punch it home to the audience. Pause when you deliver it, to give people a chance to absorb it (and jot it down!)
If it’s included in a written work, and doesn’t belong in the opening or closing, consider giving it its own paragraph, so it stands out from the body of the text. And if someone else perfectly encapsulated your thought, by all means quote it, and acknowledge the writer.
Sound bites require work. Legend has it that Neil Armstrong took six hours to come up with, “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” So, take your time, try to appeal to people’s emotions, and consult resources such as compilations of famous quotations and metaphors. (see how that series just naturally fell into threes?)
Go ahead–make a bite. Compose it, polish it, own it!