Speaking in Sound Bites: Always tell them what they want to hear


In a previous post (My Shameless but Ethical Tactics for Quickly Rising to the Top), I mentioned that you should “Tell the boss what he/she wants to hear in 30 seconds or less. You can tell him what you really want to say later…. Elaborating further, I explained that

“…I learnt to cut short the stories behind an idea to pitch it in a single breath. From the initial feedback, I soon began to tell the customer what he/she wanted to hear rather than what I wanted to tell. This tactic immediately caught their attention. I had learned to wait patiently and bump into the boss seemingly coincidentally when he was heading for the water cooler or the car. The thirty seconds or less he ignored me was enough for me to pitch the idea using all the right sound bites so that I got a ten minute appointment with him later on. This allowed me to get in the door”.

In this post, I want to elaborate a little bit more on the concept of speaking in sound bites to tell people what they want to hear.

The first time I heard the word “sound bite” was when me and my former business partner cum Boss were preparing for a magazine interview as part of our advertising campaign for the new startup. Just before the interview my Boss pulled me aside and said, they don’t want to hear your technical babble… All they are interested in are the sound bites. Leave the talking to me.

We are all familiar with the concept of sound bites. The Wikipedia definition is

sound bite is a short clip of speech or music extracted from a longer piece of audio, often used to promote or exemplify the full length piece. In the context of journalism, a sound bite is characterized by a short phrase or sentence that captures the essence of what the speaker was trying to say, and is used to summarize information and entice the reader or viewer” (Wikipedia, 1st August 2015).

In other words, these are the catchy phrases and quotes which get thrown around like confetti to keep the audience engaged. Politicians are the absolute gurus when it comes to speaking in sound bites. They have gotten it down to an art where almost everything that come out of their mouths are catchy. The ones who have mastered the skill use it to summarize an entire speech into a few memorable phrases. Let’s face it… no one remembers the specifics of a political speech and frankly many of us don’t care. However, most of us will remember the catchy phrases which were repeatedly used in the speech to drive a point forward.

In the professional sphere no one has time anymore. Be it a board meeting, business meeting, meeting with a potential client or an interview neither party has the time to actually listen to the other. Board meetings are usually events which make everyone really bored. Listening to the sales guys and finance guys trying to explain slides upon slides of numbers is no fun. Many of us turn to our smart phones to check our mail or to secretly complain on facebook about how boring the meeting is. Same goes for business meetings and client meetings where we are compelled to pretend to be interested in the opinions of the other party when all we want to do is to get their signature on the freaking contract. This can be a long and painful engagement if you don’t have the skill to get to the point fast. It’s even worse when it comes to an interview. Half the time the interviewer(s) are bored to death by the second or third candidate. So if you get the fourth slot, the odds are that they wouldn’t even hear what you are saying because their minds would have already stereotyped you into one of the few categories. Learning to speak in sound bites might be the solution.

When I was selling websites in the UK, a sales meeting usually was around 30 minutes. Out of this, the client would take around 20 minutes to explain to me what they wanted from their website. Ironically, many of them had no clue what they were talking about. This left me with only 10 minutes to sell to them why they needed a new website and why I was the best person to get them one. So I used to use the phrase “the top 20% of your website will determine 80% of its success”; which is true if you consider the Pareto principle. This made them immediately concentrate only on the home page, the color scheme, the banner, the sections and the intro which made it much simpler to close the deal using my portfolio of samples. Similarly, I now tend to use the Sinhalese version of the phrase “I can’t run a National service with broken equipment” when asking for money from the government. I make sure that I always say it in Sinhalese even if the meeting is in English. After hearing me say this repeatedly at meetings some have now started to refer to it saying “just like Ishan says…..”. The point being, sound bites will ensure that people remember you. That’s always a good thing.

Regardless of whether you are speaking to your employees, a potential client or your future employer you must learn to tell them what they want to hear in short and sharp sound bites. Our brains are programmed in such a way that it will instantly respond and take note of the words which are of interest. Needless to say, everyone is only interested in what’s in it for them. i.e. your sound bites need to concentrate on the benefits to them so that their brains take note. For example, employees will be interested in the words bonus, increment, vacation, company Christmas party etc. Make sure these are projected loudly when you are speaking to them. On the flip side, your bosses or potential employers would want to hear words such as profit, bottom line, ROI, increased sales, reduced costs, improved efficiency etc. It also bodes well to use industry specific jargon such as CQI, CPD, capex, opex etc. In terms of a potential client, words such as high quality, proven track record, award winning, customer service, free etc. would grab their attention. If you are quickly pitching to your boss about a new project, sound bites such as expansion, potential market, projected revenue, break even, diversification, I have a project proposal, initial budget etc. would increase your chances of further discussion. In general, speaking in sound bites saves time and delivers faster results. This holds true even in a relationship where you come up on top by saying things your significant other wants to hear. By this I don’t mean that you should be deceptive but rather ensure that you always reaffirm why they should continue to be with you.

In sum, I apologize if this post is a bit lengthy. Perhaps I should learn to write in sound bites as well…


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