The enduring power of the sound bite

“Fiscal waterboarding has turned this nation into a debt colony” Those were the words of Greece’s formidable new economics minister Yanis Varoufakis.

Perhaps the metaphors (“waterboarding”, “debt colony”) were a little mixed, but it’s certainly one of the most memorable sound bites I’ve heard recently.

  • 10 words long
  • Loaded with emotion and imagery
  • Capturing the essence of a complex argument
Whatever you may think about the rights or wrongs of forgiving Greek debt, the words he used lodge themselves in the mind’s eye. It’s a reminder of the enduring power of the much-derided “sound bite”. People often think of these pre-prepared 15-second bursts as the product of American TV news culture, reinvented for the 140 character world of Twitter.

Certainly, the modern version emerged in the US in response to pressure from advertisers in the 1960s and 70s. The term was coined during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, famous for using short, memorable phrases: “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall”. Tony Blair, or course, loved his sound bites, and who could forget this during the Good Friday peace talks? A day like today is not a day for sound bites, we can leave those at home, but I feel the hand of history upon our shoulder with respect to this, I really do.

The sound bite became a derogatory term – all mixed up with the worst elements of New Labour and the sultans of spin. TV journalists stopped calling them “sound bites”, preferring the neutral word “clip” instead. But, having moved from journalism into the communications world, I’m developing greater admiration for those who can encapsulate an idea in a few well-chosen words. After all, what is a “sound bite”? It’s just a good quote. That’s as old as language itself, and will endure long after the last Tweet has been sent.

Take an example from another Greek: “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom”, Socrates 400 BC. And of course, Shakespeare came up with a wonderful “sound bite” which sums it all up: “Brevity is the soul of wit”.