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Sizzling Sound Bites: Select the Best

This lesson is a part of an audio course Sizzling Sound Bites by Marcia Yudkin

By now, you should have at least half a dozen promising sound bite candidates. If not, simply go back through your notes and use the immortal technique of the shampoo business – repeat. Next, go through the following 22 criteria to winnow your list to the best choice. Yes, 22 criteria is a lot, but often the stakes are high. The effort is worth it. Note that some of the criteria relate just to certain communication situations where you plan to use your sound bite.

Intended use. Get clear on where and how you intend to use your sound bite. Will it be spoken, written, or both? Spoken sound bites are generally more informal in style and take no longer than 12 seconds to say. (That's roughly two sentences or less.) Written sound bites are even shorter. They may need to fit readably on a business card, below the business name on a website header, or on a billboard, which experts say should be seven words or fewer.

Before finalizing your favorite, determine whether or not it fits its intended use or uses.

Audience appropriateness. A National Public Radio reporter interviewing a financial expert about the concept of creating a so-called "bad bank" said, "It would be the Yucca Mountain of the financial world, wouldn't it?" I'm not sure whether this was invented off the cuff or ahead of time, but I thought this reference to the planned repository for nuclear waste in Nevada was a stunning metaphor. Most NPR listeners probably understood the comment, but it wouldn't have worked on a less brainy network or in, let's say, USA Today.

Likewise, using baseball lingo like "home run" might communicate well within North America yet flop with Europeans. This applies the other way around, too, of course. I had an English teacher in high school who had a pseudo-British persona and liked to call things a "sticky wicket." I eventually got the hang of that saying, which comes from the British sport of cricket, but most Americans don't know what a wicket is.

Be clear about whether your wording fits the knowledge, attitudes, and mindset of your audience.

Personality. Consider what personality you want to convey in your sound bite – chipper or serious? Rational or empathetic? Chatty or reserved? Irreverent or traditional? Matter-of-fact or wild? Re-examine your candidates for their tone and attitude. Timex's impertinent "Takes a licking and keeps on ticking" would clash with the opulent image of a $600-and-up watch brand. Humor works for many organizations, but it might not be appropriate for, say, hospitals or investment banks.

Intended message. Go back to what you originally wanted to say. Do your top options actually, say what you'd been hoping to say, or do they veer off in a different direction? And while you're at it, do your sound bite candidates have any double meanings or unwanted associations? In one of his books, Jimmy Carter wrote that a salmon took "a ferocious leap at my fly." He meant his fishing fly. After publication, this had to be doctored so that the salmon instead took "a ferocious leap at my lure."

Also, make sure you have a solid handle on both the literal meaning and the connotation of the words you're using. Someone I know liked how the word "incubus" sounds and thought it had to do with incubation – the process of nurturing an egg or an idea until it's ready to hatch. However, the actual definition is "a male demon believed to have sex with sleeping women." Quite a difference there!

Positive/negative. Do you want to make an affirmative statement or come off as attacking, warning, or edgy? Sometimes you can flip a sound bite containing "no," "not," or "un-" so it becomes positive.

Self-explanatory? Normally a sound bite should make sense on its own. If it requires context or illustration to be understandable, or if it communicates only to those who already know a story it summarizes, it may not be as helpful to you as you imagine. The slogan "Philly's got Benergy" makes no sense whatsoever unless it's accompanied by a picture of Ben Franklin. (It was celebrating the 300th anniversary of the birth of Philadelphia's favorite son in 2006.)

Sound. Apart from the meaning, words and phrases can sound harsh, jangly, smooth, peaceful, no-nonsense, or mysterious. Listen to each sound bite candidate as if it were music or in another language – does it convey the feeling you want to get across?

Pronounceability. Ever heard a broadcast professional or trained actor stumble over a sentence? Certain combinations of phrases are simply hard to recite or hard to hear correctly out of context. One of my books is called 6 Steps to Free Publicity, and occasionally people I was talking to over the phone told me they heard it as "six debts." Beware of words the average person wouldn't be sure how to say, like "lagniappe" or "frisson." There's an upscale bakery and sandwich shop chain that started in Boston that's named in French: Au Bon Pain. Since I know French, I never had any problem with it, but I imagine that if you didn't know any French, you might come out with "ow bohn payne." Ow indeed!

Even if you're crafting a sound bite for the page, consider pronounceability. Foreign, rare, or made-up words often are hard to spell as well. And while we're at it, I have to tell you about a tagline from a store called Sofa King that I have to say extremely slowly so you won't misunderstand: "Our prices are Sofa King low." Now speed that up in your mind. Imagine the brouhaha that could erupt when an announcer said that on the radio!

Scope. What does each possibility on your shortlist include and leave out? Some may be too narrow and others too broad. Of course, you're looking for one that's just right. It's crucial for book or article titles to indicate the contents accurately. In the business world, you may need to leave space for a possible expansion in scope. started off styling itself "Earth's Biggest Bookstore," but since they now sell everything from pots and pans to electronics, you'll no longer find them using that saying.

Specificity. Venture capitalist Guy Kawasaki advises using the "opposite test" on business slogans. Reverse the meaning of each adjective and ask yourself, would anyone ever say this about their company or their products? If not, then your original adjective is meaningless. For example, Kawasaki says, "It would be fine to describe your product as ‘intuitive, secure, fast and scalable' if your competition describes its product as ‘hard to use, vulnerable, slow and limited.' However, this probably isn't the case, so you're saying nothing."

To more effectively get your point across, replace each hollow adjective with concrete, factual statement. For "intuitive": End-users need no training. For "secure": No one has ever hacked it.

Energy. Does your sound bite have oomph? Does it wriggle and dance? Or is it blah and corpse-like? For instance, compare GE's "Imagination at work" (snappy) to "System engineering, improved" (flat). With energy, your sound bite is more likely to be catchy, appealing, and memorable.

We're half done now with the list of vetting criteria. Take a quick breather if you need to, and then join me in the next lesson for the remainder of the list.

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Written by

Marcia Yudkin