With airtime devoted to experts dwindling, crafting a concise sound bite is vital these days.
Call it the paradox of the 24-hour TV news cycle. While the amount of video-based news programming has exploded with not only cable outlets, but also the rise of Web-based news, the amount of time devoted to quotes from interview subjects has actually shrunk.
That trend is putting a premium on those who appear on TV shows to come up with short, viewer-friendly sound bites.
"People always love a well-turned phrase," notes Steve Dunlop, principal of New York-based Dunlop Media. "But the technology with which news is gathered makes it easier to cut and paste sound bites than ever. And the competitive landscape is greater than it's ever been, so a lot of outlets want to keep people's attention by keeping it short."
But while it's true that seconds now count more than ever in TV news, Betsy Goldberg, communications coach and curriculum developer for Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, suggests no executive should ever be that worried about whether their quote is eight, 10, or even 15 seconds.
"A good sound bite can be anywhere from a few words to a few short simple sentences, so I don't know [if] a time limit [is necessary]," she adds. "As long as it's concise and makes that point in a vivid way, it qualifies."
"It's not about brevity," adds Teri Goudie, a former ABC News reporter who now runs Chicago-based Goudie Media Services. "It's about speaking in a way that's memorable."
Media trainers often cite quotes like "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," as proof that great sound bites can be concise. But lines like that are much easier to deliver in a speech than in a live Q&A. Goudie suggests the biggest mistakes many execs make is memorizing and delivering the same short sound bites regardless of the question.
"I consider not answering the question to be a cardinal sin of media training," she adds. "It [appears] pompous and arrogant."
Since many executives have figured out that reporters will likely only use one sound bite per interview, T.J. Walker, president of Media Training Worldwide, says the other mistake he sees is executives trying to pack too much into their answers.
"They get too greedy and try to deliver three or four message points for every question," he says, adding that he urges clients to focus on narrowing their message in order to come up with the right sound bites.
Goldberg recommends that communications pros make sure their clients avoid not only points that are too complicated, but also complex jargon. "We always stress the importance of delivering a thought in simple, conversational language," she says. "Then you can add color to that with a number, comparison, or pop-culture reference."
For many executives, mastering the sound bite is made even harder by the fact that these days they may not be face-to-face with their interviewer. As such, they're unable to gauge how the reporter is reacting to them.
"The thing many execs fear most is the satellite interview - which has become very prevalent - because they're not talking to a person, [but] a camera lens," says Goudie.
Add in the fact that any major gaffe during a TV interview is likely to end up as a clip on YouTube or a similar site, and it's easy to see why executives increasingly flock to media training to master the short sound bite.
Dianne Chase, senior partner with strategic communications and crisis management firm C4CS, counsels clients not to feel rushed by the process simply because their sound bite will be brief.
"You always want to make sure you pause to take time to get your thoughts together before you offer a quote," she says.
She also stresses that TV and the Web are visual mediums, which means a good sound bite must be a lot more than just good audio.
"A lot of times executives are not aware of their voice, their expression, their body language," she adds. "All [of these are] sending a completely different expression than the words coming out of their mouths."
Counsel clients to use simple, conversational language during TV interviews
Keep an eye on non-verbal cues. On TV, it's not just what you say, it's how you look when you say it
Train executives to stay away from touting negative information in ways that can be easily edited into a sound bite
Just deliver sound bites during an interview. Make sure you're also answering the reporter's questions
Get greedy. A client may have four great points, but you won't be able to pack them all into one sound bite
Keep on repeating the same sound bites. Doing so will diminish their impact