Sound Bites are Good by Mark Pack & Edward Maxfield

By at July 1, 2013 | 1:56 pm | Print

Sound Bites are Good by Mark Pack & Edward Maxfield

Mark Pack

“A minimum of sound to a maximum of sense.”  Mark Twain

We have a secret passion. We like sound bites. In fact, we love sound bites. To campaign successfully you must learn to love them too.

A sound bite is your message in a nutshell. It is a short piece of speech or text, deliberately crafted to capture what you want to say in a way that wins the attention of the audience. Ronald Reagan, a master of political communication, was a master of sound bites: ‘Governments don’t solve problems, they subsidise them.’ Short, clear and with an ideological kick.

It is true that sound bites have had a bad press. Critics say sound bites are too brief for proper discussion of complicated issues.

Ask them to think of the Ten Commandments. Most are so brief you can even put them in a tweet. But each is packed with moral meaning on weighty subjects. Remind them that any good manager or leader knows their priorities – what matters most to fix their firm or their community. That is a sound bite.

You can be brief and be thoughtful. You can be concise and tackle the difficult issues. You can be short and be sophisticated.

Otherwise, Edward Everett would be a household name. He gave a two-hour speech on 19 November 1863 in Pennsylvania, USA. The next speaker spoke for barely more than two minutes. Yet chances are you have heard of him and his speech: Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address.

The power of well-deployed brevity is true outside politics too, which is why Einstein is hailed as a genius for coming up with E=mc2 rather than attacked for dumbing down a core scientific principle to a mere five characters.

And there is the crux of the matter: the art of all effective communication is understanding that your audience sets the terms. Even in the full heat of an election campaign, your audience is only likely to let politics into their lives for a few brief moments. (The same too applies to Einstein, which is why his short formula caught the public’s interest in a way that most other Nobel Prize-winning work has never got close to.)

You might think that your original and life transforming policy ideas deserve more airtime. They cannot be fully appreciated without a lengthy exposition of their merits. By you. From a lectern. Preferably on prime-time TV. But we are talking about effective communication, and communication does not work if your audience is not listening.

Two examples from UK politics illustrate the point well. Margaret Thatcher faced an angry electorate and a restless party when she gave her keynote speech to the Conservative Party conference in 1980. The speech was a long one but it was a single phrase that captured the headlines. ‘The lady’s not for turning’ came to define Margaret Thatcher and her politics in the minds of voters:

Another well-chosen phrase defined New Labour’s priorities as they approached their 1997 election victory. In a speech to party members, Tony Blair asked the question: ‘What will be our priorities in government?’ He answered himself with ‘Education, education, education’. The phrase captured both the policy priority and a sense of determination to pursue the agenda.

A sound bite good enough to be remembered does not come easily. What does come easily is always remembering to prioritise. What really is the important message? What would be your first priority if you were (re)elected? Think it, write it and edit it down.

Start by getting your answer to that basic question and go from there. Consider the key issues you will be facing in the campaign and fix on a sound bite that captures what you want to say on each. But of course do not try to use each one every time you speak!

Your sound bites will not only be your message to the public; they will be your reminder to yourself about what you really want to achieve.

This lesson is taken from our book, 101 Ways To Win An Election which in addition to the 10 in this series has another 91 one for you to learn from! Buy the book

Dr Mark Pack is the co-author of 101 Ways To Win an Election and former Head of Innovations for the UK’s Liberal Democrat party, where he ran the party’s 2001 and 2005 online general election campaigns. His internet campaigning firsts include arranging the first British political party leader on Facebook and the first British election candidate website to take online donations.

@markpack on Twitter

Dr Edward Maxfield has worked as a campaigns and communications professional for over a decade. He currently runs the constituency office of Norman Lamb, UK Member of Parliament and Health Minister in the Coalition Government. Ed was a member of the Liberal Democrats’ national campaigns team from 2001 to 2006 and has also worked as a lecturer, a lobbyist and for some of the world’s biggest business consultancy firms.


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  • Dotty

    I bought you book to share with my (U.S) clients. Even though it is written with the U.K perspective in mind, good advice for all. Thanks.

  • Glad to hear that – and thank you!