Sound Bites in Communication

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

sound bite
Speechwriter Jeff Shesol likens the sound bite to a smoke ring: "a neat trick, maybe, but it's gone in an instant; it dissolves in the air" (quoted in The Enlightened Bracketologist, 2007). Sam Bassett/Getty Images

A sound bite is a brief excerpt from a text or performance (usually ranging from a single word to a sentence or two) that is meant to capture the interest and attention of an audience. Also known as a grab or a clip.

"In recent presidential elections," said Craig Fehrman in 2012, "the average TV sound bite has dropped to a tick under eight seconds" (The Boston Globe). In the 1960s, a 40-second sound bite was the norm.

Examples and Observations From Other Writers

  • "From the late 1960s to the late 1980s, the place of oratory in U.S. public culture was shrinking--literally. In 1968, the average sound bite in presidential election news coverage was more than 43 seconds long. In 1972, it dropped to 25 seconds. In 1976, it was 18 seconds; in 1980, 12 seconds; in 1984, just 10 seconds. By the time the 1988 election season rolled around, the size of the average sound bite had been reduced to less than 9 seconds. . . . By the end of the 1980s, . . . the time and space allotted to political oratory in the American mainstream media had already been incrementally eroded."
    (Megan Foley, "Sound Bites: Rethinking the Circulation of Speech From Fragment to Fetish." Rhetoric and Public Affairs, Winter 2012)
  • "A day like today is not a day for sound bites, really. But I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders."
    (Prime Minister Tony Blair on arriving in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for the talks that produced the Good Friday Agreement, April 8, 1998
  • "Seeking to prod Congress to provide more money to help prevent layoffs from local and state governments, [President] Obama stressed how much better off private companies are doing in terms of hiring.  “'The private sector is doing fine,' he said, immediately giving Mitt Romney the same kind of bumper-sticker sound bite that Mr. Obama used against Mr. McCain four years ago." (Michael D. Shear, "Republicans Take Aim at Obama’s ‘Doing Fine’ Comments." The New York Times, June 8, 2012)
  • "Over images of factory employees hard at work and smiling families, an announcer says, 'when a million jobs were on the line, every Republican candidate turned their back, even said, 'Let Detroit go Bankrupt."'

    "Then the commercial pivots to the president. 'Not him,' says the announcer as a sound bite of the president plays. 'Don’t bet against the American auto industry,' Mr. Obama is shown saying."
    (Jeremy W. Peters, "Obama Goes After Republicans in New Michigan Ad." The New York Times, February 23, 2012)
     
  • "I am even told that you like your reading in short bursts now. Little chunks. Sound bites. Like that. Because you are busy. In a rush. Like to graze. Like cows. A bite here. A bite there. Too much to do. No time to spare. Under pressure. Bollocks. Lazy. Stupid. Finger out. Socks up.

    "It was not always thus. Time was when an Englishman could happily gawp at a single sentence for an hour at a time. The ideal magazine essay took roughly as long to read as it took your umbrella to dry."
    (Michael Bywater, The Chronicles of Bargepole. Jonathan Cape, 1992)

Sound Bites as Compressed Arguments

  • "As Peggy Noonan has explained so well, a sound bite is the culmination of good writing and a good argument. 'Ask not what your country can do ...' or 'The only thing we have to fear ...' represented the sharpest point of the speeches behind them." (John Dickerson, "Dispatches From the Republican National Convention."Slate, August 30, 2012)
  • "The sound-bite should encapsulate the main point of the argument; the strongest opinion or reaction. Again there is a danger of distortion by over-emphasizing the already emphatic and polarizing a point of view, and this danger can only be eliminated by carefully explaining the context in which the remarks were made." (Andrew Boyd, Peter John Stewart, and Ray Alexander, Broadcast Journalism: Techniques of Radio and Television News, 6th ed. Focal Press, 2008)

The Sound Bite Culture

  • "A sound bite society is one that is flooded with images and slogans, bits of information and abbreviated or symbolic messages--a culture of instant but shallow communication. It is not just a culture of gratification and consumption, but one of immediacy and superficiality, in which the very notion of 'news' erodes in a tide of formulaic mass entertainment. It is a society anesthetized to violence, one that is cynical but uncritical, and indifferent to, if not contemptuous of, the more complex human tasks of cooperation, conceptualization, and serious discourse. . . . "The sound bite culture . . . focuses on the immediate and the obvious; the near-term, and the particular; on identity between appearance and reality; and on the self rather than larger communities. Above all, it is a society that thrives on simplicity and disdains complexity."(Jeffrey Scheuer, The Sound Bite Society: How Television Helps the Right and Hurts the Left. Routledge, 2001)

    Television Journalism and Sound Bites

    • "In any campaign reform, it must be acknowledged that television news is an accomplice as well as a victim of the politicos. The sound bite is to television what the fang bite was to Dracula. The office seeker who has a thought that takes more than 30 seconds to express turns producers rabid." (Walter Goodman, "Toward a Campaign of Substance in '92." The New York Times, March 26, 1990)
    • "Television is the enemy of complexity. You rarely have time to express the fine points, the caveats, the context of your subject. You're always being interrupted just as you try to make a larger point. What works best on a talk show is the snappy one-liner, the artful insult, the definitive declaration. What makes you look weak and vacillating is an acknowledgment that your case is not airtight, that the other side may have a valid point." (Howard Kurtz, Hot Air: All Talk, All The Time. Times Books, 1996)

     

    • "If news reporters and cameras are only there to be used by politicians as recording devices for their scripted soundbites, at best that is a professional discourtesy. At worst, if we are not allowed to explore and examine a politician's views, then politicians cease to be accountable in the most obvious way." (ITV news reporter Damon Green, quoted by Mark Sweney in "Ed Miliband TV Interviewer Reveals Shame Over 'Absurd' Soundbites." The Guardian, July 1, 2011)​

    Sound-Bite Sabotage

    • "Sound-bite saboteurs on all sides of the aisle try to move the opinion of publics toward positions that are contrary to the best available data. Rather than communicating with publics to enable more informed decision making, sound-bite sabotage occurs when public and private leaders use the tools of public relations to discredit the importance of using data, engaging in scholarly inquiry, and supporting democratic deliberation.

       

      • "Seeing (hearing, reading, experiencing) sound-bite sabotage draws our attention to the commodification of political discourse rather than to the political spectacles constructed, to distract citizens from the communicative strategies mobilized by public and private elites." (Julie Drew, William Lyons, and Lance Svehla. Sound-Bite Saboteurs: Public Discourse, Education, and the State of Democratic Deliberation. SUNY Press, 2010)

      Alternate Spellings: sound-bite, soundbite

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      Your Citation
      Nordquist, Richard. "Sound Bites in Communication." ThoughtCo, Apr. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/sound-bite-communication-1691978. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 2). Sound Bites in Communication. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/sound-bite-communication-1691978 Nordquist, Richard. "Sound Bites in Communication." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/sound-bite-communication-1691978 (accessed January 17, 2018).