Do your sound bites make sense?

Why are PR quotes so much longer than media quotes?

Mark Twain once defined a sound bite as “a minimum of sound to a maximum of sense.”

 Do your sound bites make sense?

More sense, less sound If sound bites are, as Mark Twain said, “a minimum of sound to a maximum of sense,” how much sense does a 100+-word PR quote make? Image by Namroud Gorguis

So this quote, from The New York Times’ “Riches to Rags for New York Teenager Who Admits His Story Is a Hoax,” makes a lot of sense. The reporter asks the subject if he had in fact made any money at all.

“No,” he replied.1

But how much sense does this quote, from a release posted on PRNewswire recently, make?

“My partner Rick Sullivan and I are thrilled to announce the addition of MSDP to our portfolio” said Tom Callahan, Managing Director at Lincolnshire. “Under the leadership of a talented management team, MSDP has developed into a world-class performance automotive business managing great brands and boasting key strengths in both ignition and electronic tuning technologies. MSDP provides the ideal partner for Holley, a Lincolnshire portfolio company that is the leading manufacturer and marketer of performance fuel and exhaust systems. Together, these two iconic franchises, Holley and MSDP, will serve future generations of brand conscious street performance enthusiasts, hot rodders and racers with innovative new products and category-leading lines of refreshed, rejuvenated and improved versions of existing products.”

For the reporter’s perspective, I pulled three such quotes for a column I was writing for PRSA Tactics. However, I was able to use only one, because at 100 to 200 words, each sucked up 20% to 40% of my word count.

Mark Twain once defined a sound bite as “a minimum of sound to a maximum of sense.”

That doesn’t make sense at all.

So how long should your corporate quotes be?

Write like the Times.

Keep them to 20 words or less, plus attribution.

Twenty words is the average length of a quote in one issue of The New York Times, which Wylie Communications analyzed a couple of years ago. (We skipped the sports pages.)

We found that, excluding attribution, The New York Times’:

  • Average length of a quote was 19 to 20 words.
  • Median length was 18 words.
  • Most common length, with 22 examples in one day, was 7 words.

Can you write like the Times? Here’s what quotes of this length look like:

20 words:

“An officer can gain no Fourth Amendment advantage,” the chief justice wrote, “through a sloppy study of the laws he is duty-bound to enforce.”2

18 words:

“He knew he was deserting the Army and would be charged, but killing himself was a bigger sin,” said Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, a retired Army psychiatrist who testified for the defense during the sentencing phase of the trial.3

7 words:

“You can predict behavior you can’t observe,” said Aleksander Obabko, a computational engineer at Argonne.4

As long as you’re writing like the Times, why not target the news giant’s 7-word most-common length instead of its 20-word average?

Benchmark your preferred media outlets. How long are their quotes? How long are yours?

Please share your comments and questions about writing shorter sound bites.

“Even a lame quote will sound better if it’s brief.”
—Jim Ylisela Jr., principle at Duff Media Partners

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“Since I attended Ann’s PR writing class and started implementing her tips, every press release I’ve written has been picked up by the media. That’s what I call ROI!”
– Stephanie Sobotik, senior manager, global marketing communications at Freescale Semiconductor

[1]Riches to Rags for New York Teenager Who Admits His Story Is a Hoax,”The New York Times,Dec. 15, 2014

[2] Court Rules for a Mistaken Police Officer,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[3]Army Deserter Is Jailed for Chasing the Conflicts That Steadied His Mind,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[4] “Betting on the Need, Scientists Work on Lighter, Cleaner Nuclear Energy,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014