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Why Sound Bites are Important

The help sheet Developing a Lift Speech showed how important it is for your group to prepare a short, 15-to-30 second "lift speech" which sells your organisation in a short, sharp, clear and convincing way.

A lift speech gets its name from an imaginary scenario in which you find yourself in a lift with someone you would like to impress with information about your group.

The scenario dictates that you only have 30 seconds to "sell" your group and get your message through to the person in the lift.

The concept of a sound bite is similar to a lift speech.

A sound bite is the verbal equivalent of a newspaper "quote". It is a short, catchy snippet of speech, usually between 5 and 10 seconds, which television and radio use in their reports to summarise your opinion or make a point.

A lift speech is different from a media sound bite, but they share a lot in common in the way they are developed and in their underlying principles.  They are both designed to sell a message in the shortest possible time.

This help sheet will look at the two main reasons why your group should have a concise and snappy sound bite; the media time limitations and the competition from other stories for a spot on the nightly news.

1) Sound bites, time restrictions and the media

The main reason sound bites are important to the media is because of tight time restrictions.

The majority of television news services have only 30 minutes to tell the viewer what has gone on in the world that day.

In fact, it's less than 30 minutes when you:
  • Take out commercials and they've only got between 17 and 21 minutes.
  • Take out sport and the weather and they've got about 10 to 12 minutes.
  • Take out international stories and that leaves about eight to 10 minutes – eight to 10 minutes to sum up the Australian news of the day.
Radio news bulletins can be even tighter, usually about two to seven minutes, with about one to four minutes devoted to Australian news.

In this environment the value of a sharp and succinct sound bite becomes obvious.

Let's say that you've got the attention of the news media. It might be something you did, something someone else has said about you, something someone else has done in your area of interest and they've come to your office for an interview.

You have the chance to get your message out to a million people (if it's national). You've got past all the usual hurdles, you've got a reporter and a camera and someone waving a microphone under your nose and they want to hear what you have to say.

How much time do you have to tell your story? You may be interviewed for five minutes or hold a 20 minute press conference but from that maybe only two 'grabs' of you speaking will be used.

You have to be absolutely clear where you're coming from because you're only going to have five to 10 seconds at most to explain your point of view.

This is where a snappy sound bite is crucial.

2) Sound bites, story competition and the media

The other reason to communicate your message using a catchy sound bite is that it can help put your story above others that happen on the same day.

So many stories happen each day that are not even touched by television news,  some get bumped by a disaster, scandal or big event, others don't get covered  because they are not important or newsworthy enough or don't have great pictures to go with the story.

The competition for time on nightly news is fierce. Your story may be competing against wars, floods, fires, famines, politicians caught lying, politicians caught telling embarrassing truths, and celebrity divorces, among other things.

Many have pictures that are better than yours. You're only a talking head and they have good vision of beached whales off the coast or a pet cat that can count.

Think about this:
  • In a metropolitan television newsroom each day, the chief-of-staff or producers will start off with a list of around 30 potential stories.
  • After a conference they will decide to pursue maybe 12 of those stories.
  • By the time the news credits rolls around, about six to eight of those will have made it onto your screen.
This competition among stories for airtime is another reason a good sound bite is invaluable. Not only do you need to make your group or organisation's story attention-grabbing to ensure it makes it onto the news, but it also needs to grab the viewers attention.

You might have only five to 10 seconds to sum up your story on air. That's about 20 or 30 words and the trick is to make that time work for you with a strong sound bite.

The key to creating a good quality sound bite for your group is preparation. The help sheet Creating a Tasty Sound Bite looks at how you can create a good quality sound bite and use it effectively.

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