The Evolution of the Sound Bite

Feb 14, 2018
Steven Spielberg’s ‘The Post’ is currently wowing audiences and critics alike, sitting firmly in the UK and US top tens and picking up a whole host of Oscar nominations. The film tells the story of The Washington Post’s attempts to publish classified papers detailing the US government’s involvement in the Vietnam War. But this isn’t the only thing the newspaper is famous for: they’re credited with coining the term ‘sound bite’. Read on as we explore the evolution of this term, and how businesses are now using sound bites to capture the ear of their callers.

A picture can paint a thousand words, but so can 10 words if they’re carefully crafted, instantly retained and carefully placed to provoke a response – and it’s this idea that underpins the ‘sound bite’. Defined as ‘a short and easily remembered line, intended by the speaker to be suitable for media repetition' (Phrasefinder), the term was first coined by The Washington Post in 1980, when William F. Rhatican said, ‘any editor needs a concise, 30-second sound bite. Anything more than that, you’re losing them’. The meaning behind a five page article can be lost to the reader, but a powerful, succinct summary stays in the head, and spreads from person to person.

The soundbite has played a key role in some of the most iconic moments in history. Few remember every word of Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons in 1940, but they didn’t need to. The rallying call of “We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches” was enough to inspire, unite and instil a new vigour to those who needed it, and this sound bite lives on almost 80 years later – with the same hair-raising impact. It’s a technique other politicians have employed throughout history. Obama offered “a change we can believe in“; Theresa May promised “strong and stable leadership”, and Trump pledged to “make America great again” – short, simple sound bites designed to appeal directly to their followers.
Blog QuoteIn today’s society, time is of the essence; food is faster than ever and you can meet your soulmate with the swipe of a thumb. Whatever it is an audience wants, they want it and this decrease in attention spans and patience makes the modern sound bite increasingly important in the portrayal of characters. When Game of Thrones’ Ned Stark warns that “Winter is coming”, this family’s traits were immediately imprinted in the minds of viewers; they’re sullen and apprehensive. This sound bite then became an instant point of recognition, characterising House Stark.


Sound bites have also helped characterise many of the biggest brands the world over. KFC’s “finger lickin’ good” portrays them as a diner of the people – no matter who you are, we’ll all be licking our fingers after a delicious meal here. And when L’Oreal tell you it’s “because you’re worth it”, you really believe them: they’re a premium brand, but one we all deserve to use. And as well as slogans, On-Hold Marketing also represents a powerful use of the sound bite. Designed to fit the average hold time of 33 seconds – practically the same the length of The Washington Post’s famous sound bite – a production is made up of short, powerful and carefully constructed messages designed give callers the best impression of your brand – and one they’re sure to remember.