How to win in a soundbite world

How much can you say in 25 words? If you are asked to do a radio or television interview, you’d better figure out how well you can express a big thought in a few words. The average soundbite in a recorded interview is about 7 seconds. And most people speak between 21 and 25 words in 7 seconds.

In our media training workshops, we urge people to try to focus their messaging into answers that are close to the 7 second average. For most, it’s a struggle. Most people are socialized to give helpful answers to questions… and that usually means longer answers. Educators often feel compelled to educate; experts feel the need to make their expertise understandable. In a social encounter, these are laudable objectives.

But a media interview is not a social encounter. Generally, you agree to an interview because you have a message to deliver. You are looking to promote, position, reassure, respond or inform. Your objective is achieved if your preferred message is used by the media in the form in which you delivered it.

In other words, unedited. But your answer WILL be edited if it’s substantially longer than six or seven seconds. If you consistently give answers that are 15 or 20 or 30 seconds long, you give away control of your message.

You are giving the journalist permission to slice and dice your response in order to find the five or six seconds that will make a soundbite. They may take the start of the answer, the end of the answer, or snip a fragment out of the middle. You will have no say in that selection process. And that’s why some people watch themselves on a newscast and wonder ‘Why did they choose that?’ or, worse still, feel that their comments were taken out of context.

If you want to keep control of your message, keep your answers shorter. And that means really focussing your thoughts before the interview starts. What’s the briefest, brightest, boldest expression of your key message? Define and refine your message before the interview begins.