by Maribeth Neelis

: a succinct recorded statement (as by a public figure) broadcast especially on a television news program; also: a brief catchy comment or saying.

A Brief History

In politics
The term, coined in the 1970s in media circles, is said to have gained traction during the Reagan administration, as the President was known for his short, memorable phrases, like:

“Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

In the media
The first known printed citations come from that period.

"Remember that any editor watching needs a concise, 30-second sound bite. Anything more than that, you're losing them."

          --The Washington Post, June 1980

"TV's formula these days is perhaps 100 words from the reporter, and a ‘sound bite’ of 15 or 20 words from the speaker."

          --Time, June 1983

In marketing and PR
Social media has taken the sound bite to new levels, compelling companies and individuals to boil down ideas into short, catchy phrases, driving them to cheap tricks to get our attention.

Sound Bites and Reductionism

Even when they click, readers can’t stay focused. It's the age of skimming, and data suggests, the more words on the page, the less likely a reader will make it to the bottom. What’s more, many people share articles they haven’t fully read. 
Maria Popova discusses this issue that concerns her daily on her website

“the reckless reduction of complex ideas into sticky sound bites and catchphrases, a practice that … has become not merely an accepted cultural standard, but a profitable business model in the 'ideas economy.' Under such commodification of thought, after a while, all these bite-sized ideas begin to sound, look and, eventually, act the same."

You have probably experienced this first hand searching for information online. Despite different titles and URLs, articles often contain very similar information, sometimes sharing entire paragraphs verbatim.

The Value of a Sound Bite

Despite some drawbacks, a well-crafted sound bite can be a marketing or PR professional's secret weapon. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, author, and science communicator, recounts how he discovered the value of the sound bite and how to whip up one that whets your audience's appetite.

Its anatomy: three sentences that tell something informative, make you smile and contain something so tasty, you might want to tell it to someone else.

"Why do you think we call them bites?"

deGrasse Tyson reminds us:

 “don’t think that sound bites aren’t useful if they don’t contain a curriculum. A sound bite is useful because it triggers interest in someone, who then goes and puts in the effort to learn more. … Take the moment to stimulate interest, and upon doing that you have set a learning path into motion that becomes self-driven because that sound bite was so tasty — why do you think we call them bites?”

His sentiment is relevant to anyone engaged in the art of communication, (or those of us who have ever been asked what we do for a living at a dinner party.)

How to Craft a Sound Bite

Consider your audience.
For deGrasse Tyson, this a-ha moment came after ABC aired just a piece of his extensive interview about the discovery of the first planet orbiting a star that was not the sun. 

This piece:

He realized that although they were interviewing him in his area of expertise, it was actually for them in their place, where sound bites rule.

“Rather than have them sound bite me, why don’t I hand them a sound bite that's already condensed. They can’t edit that.”

Boil it down.
deGrasse Tyson begins by stating the main concepts he wants to articulate and then paring them down to three sentences that are informative, make you smile and contain something so tasty that you might want to share it with someone else.

“You trim, you carve the words such that all that’s left is the most important concept communicated in the simplest, most direct way.”

Be an artist.
Poetic techniques that work in literature can make a simple phrase more memorable. You can get ideas from popular advertising slogans, but don’t ignore the classics. Pick up a famous novel and read it paying attention to word choice, metaphors, contrast, rhyme, rhythm, and repetition.

Pay attention to sentence construction. A long, meandering sentence will dull your point. Short choppy ones can interrupt flow and rhythm.

deGrasse Tyson likens this process of whittling down an idea for social media to sculpting.

“When I compose a tweet, I feel like [Rodin] who said, “When I make a sculpture, I just cut away everything that isn’t the man or the woman, and then that’s what’s left.”

If you just skimmed through until the end of this post, here’s the sound bite:

Part of the evolution of communication, sound bites aim to distill ideas into pithy, persuasive packages. In our multi-tasked, content-crammed culture, they may be the most effective means to control a message, trigger interest and set a learning path in motion.