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.
For example:

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!

Undoubtedly there are ancient cave drawings that try to make sense out of love. Folks have been trying to fathom the unfathomable, to explain it, to define it, to embrace or reject it, since the dawn of time, and it has become variously the subject, the theme, the conflict, the climax or the resolution of literature’s greatest stories down through the ages.

Because love is so subjective, individuals respond to epigrams and advice about love with varying degrees of acceptance. (Personally, I’ve never thought that “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” made any sense whatsoever!)

Here are a curated collection of literary aphorisms that speak to me; perhaps you’ll enjoy them for Valentine’s day as well.


You don’t love because: you love despite; not for the virtues, but despite the

faults. William Faulkner

It doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like, so long as somebody loves you.—Roald Dahl, The Witches

The desire to get married is a basic and primal instinct in women. It’s followed by another basic and primal instinct: the desire to be single again.Nora Ephron

I have learned not to worry about love; but to honor its coming with all my heart. Alice Walker

I was about half in love with her by the time we sat down. That’s the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty…you fall half in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are. — J. D. Salinger

Love is like the wind; you can’t see it but you can feel it. Nicholas Sparks

To get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with. — Mark Twain

Who, being loved, is poor? — Oscar Wilde

You can’t blame gravity for falling in love. —Albert Einstein

The best thing to hold on to in life is each other. —Audrey Hepburn

Keep love in our heart. Life without it is like a sunless garden where the flowers are dead. —Oscar Wilde Love is an irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired. —Oscar Wilde

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage. —Lau Tzu

Love doesn’t make the world go round. Love is what makes the ride worthwhile Franklin Jones

All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt. Charles Schultz

Love is but the discovery of ourselves in others, and the delight in the recognition.

Alexander Smith

It is better to love wisely, no doubt: but to love foolishly is better than not to be able to love at all. William Makepeace Thackeray

We’re all a little weird, and life’s a little weird. And when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with ours, we join up with them and fall in mutual weirdness and call it love. Dr. Seuss

The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference.  Elie Wiesel

Love is of all passions the strongest, for it attacks simultaneously the head, the heart, and the senses. Lao Tzu


There is no remedy for love but to love more. Henry David Thoreau

Love is a serious mental disease.  Plato

Love is like a friendship caught on fire. In the beginning a flame, very pretty, often hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering. As love grows older, our hearts mature and our love becomes as coals, deep-burning and unquenchable.  Bruce Lee

Love is the greatest refreshment in life.  Pablo Picasso

Love is not measured by how many times you touch each other, but by how many times you reach each other. Unknown

My granddaughter and I were discussing stories the other day.  We thought we might write one together.

“But, you know,” I said, trying to reduce the concept of structure to the simplest form possible, “we need something interesting to happen.  There needs to be a beginning, a middle and an end.”

“Oh, yeah, I know all about that,” she told me.  Not the first time I’d been outdistanced by a seven-year- old.  “You mean like ‘first, next, then and finally.   But before that, you need characters, setting, problem and solution.  THEN you do first, next, then and finallyThat’s how you tell a story.

Yup! Pretty much!

No matter if you are writing a novel, a memoir, a speech, a presentation or a sales pitch—or even selling yourself—the way you assemble and reveal the elements of your story is critical to the effect you want to create, the theme or moral you want to emerge, or the point you want to drive home. We humans are hardwired to learn, understand and communicate best through stories.

My last post, How to Say it Better in 2016–Literally!  covered tips for SAYING it Better.  Next up?  Six questions to ask yourself to ensure you TELL it better:

  1. Have I started in the right place?

It’s critical to engage your audience by starting with a hook to snag their interest.  Your narrative ideally should begin “in medias res”—in the middle of things.  There’s your protagonist, wanting, needing or doing something that either causes or reacts to the inciting incident….the occurrence or action that gets the story rolling.

Many storytellers make the mistake of spewing out several pages of background before giving their audience some kernel that helps them empathize or be otherwise fascinated with the protagonist.  Unfortunately, in our fast-paced, spoiled-for-choice digital world, we don’t have the luxury of our earliest spinners of tales to introduce our protagonists at birth and minutely narrate their journey to adulthood before that inciting incident happens that’s going to launch our story .  Get to it!  Drop us into the middle of the action and give us relevant background only as it affects the forward momentum of the story! (check out How will you explain it? below)

2.What’s the motivation?

Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”– Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!” — Ray Bradbury

Characters don’t act in a vacuum.  They do things for a reason.  (Well, maybe the wrong reason, but still….) Everyone wants something, or desperately needs something, and it’s best if it’s something they don’t yet have.   Make sure your reader understands your character’s goal, what is inciting him or her to embark on something risky, to change course, or to get up off their butts and do something foolhardy or dangerous….or completely “out of character.”

3.What’s at stake?

The higher the stakes, the more invested the reader (or listener) becomes in the character’s goal.  And if the clock is ticking, so much the better.  The stock market doesn’t have to destroy the economy, a bomb doesn’t have to explode, but is a child’s life on the line?  Can a convicted criminal clear her name? Can a gentleman reunite with the love of his life before his terminal illness snatches him away? Make us care!

And make sure the stakes are high enough to merit those foolhardy, dangerous or out-of-character actions I mentioned above! My personal pet peeve? Heroines who deliberately but inexplicably put themselves in harm’s way when they could have (a) not walked into a dark alley alone at midnight, (b) said something unnecessarily inflammatory to a weapon-toting terrorist, (c) called for backup instead of confronting twenty angry bikers all by her lonesome.)

4.How will the plot thicken?

As writing instructor Steven James puts it, “At the heart of story is tension, and at the heart of tension is unmet desire. At its core, a story is about a character who wants something but cannot get it. As soon as he gets it, the story is over. So, when you resolve a problem, it must always be within the context of an even greater plot escalation.  The plot must always thicken; it must never thin… .

If you remember to continually try to make things worse for the protagonist, and avoid that dreaded sagging middle of the story when nothing much is happening, you will make your story that much more engaging. Because we humans tend to think in patterns and process information to arrive at logical conclusions, plot twists are ideal for keeping your listener or reader engaged.  Think about deliberately breaking a logical pattern by incorporating a development that is paradoxical or unexpected.

5.How will you explain it?

But hold on there!  Just because you’ve created a deliberately shocking turn of events doesn’t mean it will work without a reasonable cause.  Your story still needs to be constructed in such a way that each element in it is caused by an action or event that preceded it.  Skilled storytellers are adept at layering in foreshadowing so that, though the listener is surprised, they realize in retrospect that the author has been giving them subtle clues to this turn of events all along. In stories that succeed in maintaining your interest page by page and chapter by chapter–or in a speech, minute by minute– discoveries and realizations happen AFTER the actions rather than before them.  To continually move the story forward, always try to build on what has already been said and done.

6.Are you sure that scene, that paragraph, that word… is absolutely necessary?

“I try to leave out the parts that people skip. ~–Elmore Leonard

“Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.”—Kurt Vonnegut  Jr.

Both these quotes illustrate the importance of giving yourself the opportunity to take off your writer’s hat and don an analyst’s. Look critically at every line you’ve written and ask yourself if it has a function in your story.  Is it advancing the plot?  Is it describing a character? Be on the lookout for “information dumps” or long descriptive paragraphs that don’t contribute to revealing new information.

And then, accept that at some point, even if you really want to go over it just one more time, you are going to have to let go of your fledgling and allow your story to fly into the world.

Are you a spinner of tales?  What works best to captivate your audience?  Which storytellers do you admire most, and why?