Yesterday was opening day of the sound bite derby in Washington and Republican mastery of the form is expected to dominate the news cycle the way the Yankees dominate Boston. Democrats conceded the verbal arms race long ago. If they are wandering in the wilderness, it is largely in search of a pithy phrase. However, seeing as how they can’t seem to buy a vowel on the open market, much less truncate their verbosity to the tastes of media meatpackers, I thought the whole sound bite thing might be worth a look.
NPR’s Morning Edition aired a piece on sound bites yesterday. Turns out a good sound bite is nine seconds long. In 1968, the average sound bite was 43 seconds long. By 1988, it was down to nine seconds. In 1992, CBS actually tried to lengthen the sound bite to about 30 seconds, but most politicians couldn’t string enough words together to make for a single “coherent thought” so the network abandoned the effort. (Only Bill Clinton had sufficient verbal acumen to master the short-lived long-form sound bite.)
Uberwordsmith and Republican pollster Frank Luntz offered some inadvertent comedy in the NPR piece when he said:
“To be perfectly candid, I’ve made a very nice living out of creating sound bites, but as an academic and a professor and an author, I really wish that we had more time, more information, more discussion and less sound bites.”
(Notice how he strung all those “ands” together to make an anti-sound bite sound bite to prove his point.) NPR’s Steve Inskeep described Luntz’s practice as advising Republican candidates to “use phrases that in effect win the argument without taking the time for argument.” Inskeep’s comment illuminates the way to discovering how effective sound bites are constructed.
The secret to an effective nine-second sound bite is a two-second kernel (my idea, not NPR’s). This kernel will be two or three words, never more. A few examples:
- Death panels
- Government takeover
- Drill baby drill
- Runaway spending
- Big government
- Energy independence
- Job-killing taxes
These kernels comprise the hot-button tags that bypass all those virtues that Luntz so dearly misses, and go straight to the reptilian command-and-control center of the brain. “Tags” is the right word, as in graffiti tags, handles, or names; the briefest of brief descriptors. Last week I witnessed the launch of a new one in former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s Op-Ed piece that I covered in a blog post here. In his diatribe against public employees he introduced the sound bite kernel “government unions.”
So why is it that only Republicans can master the sound bite? Why can’t the Democrats score with something like Senator Kennedy’s oft-repeated, “Affordable health care is a right not a privilege.” Granted, “a right not a privilege” is five words, but it is at least in the ball park.
I would argue that it helps if at least one of the words sounds good in a Sun-Belt accent. Compress “government” to “gummmint” and you are on the right track. Try this with “death panels.” “Deahpanos.” See what I’m saying? An economy of breath allows the phrase to breathe easily in its nine-second setting. Think of it as the diamond setting in a ring.
But mellifluous delivery is not the only secret. It is a lot harder to go positive than negative in a hard-hitting sound bite. “Cut this, cut that” works so much better than “proposing a new blah blah blah,” whatever it is. We don’t really have time for actual proposals in our “24-second news cycle” as the Onion calls it. Perhaps as the Democrats move to the defensive we will see an improvement in their game…but I wouldn’t count on it. I think the only good two-second kernel they ever came up with was “cut socsecurity” (say it fast) as in, “Republicans want to cut yer socsecurity.” That one had legs.
I suspect that the effectiveness of a good sound bite requires participation by both the speaker and the receiver. You have to want your public policy delivered in two-second sniglets for them to be entirely successful. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that while conservatives will spend days, weeks and months rifling the Federalist Papers for proof of a mandate for Christian Nationalism, they actually have little use for extended discussions about current policy. They can just say “B-1 bomber” and they’re done. I call this “premature exactication.”
Liberals, on the other hand, can get all wrapped up in something like “health exchanges,” which no one can define in less than 1,000 words. And once they’ve launched that canard, they insist on debating it for months and throwing around terms like “co-op health exchanges” until even policy wonks are confused.
Now I’m not saying that just because most Democrats went to college and most Republicans didn’t that the whole sound bite thing works the way it does—not at all. What I am saying is that most conservatives went to college on athletic scholarships and were excused from all of their Humanities classes where discourse, debate and extended discussion skills were developed. You know how they say porn can warp male sexual response? Well, Cliff Notes can be damaging, too.
Despite these desperate rationalizations, Democrats are forced to admit they are losers in the verbal arms race to the best, shortest, path to win an argument. And for this, I don’t have an answer, despite my longwindedness. If I want to discuss a topic, I’m still gonna use 1,200 words, damnit. But here’s my tip: If you are going to write, or talk like that, sprinkle the message, with short, pithy, two-second constructions embodied in the longer text or speech. Like “premature exactication.” Actually, I failed. My two words—eight phreakin’ syllables—take three seconds to say. So you see how hard it can be. But I would still like to hear newly-minted minority leader Nancy Pelosi stand up in the House and say, “Mr. Speaker, your alleged “gummint takeover” of health care reform sounds to me like a virulent case of premature exactication.” (Nine seconds with “virulent.”)
So Dems, if you want to recapture the vast middle, many of whom also attended college on athletic scholarships, do us a favor and think short.