How to write in sound bites by Hugh Vaughan-Williams, May 2014

One of the best weapons in a writer’s armoury is the quote. The secret is to know how to use it well. “All journalists worthy of the name use quotes,” according to John Campbell, former editorial director of the giant Hearst magazine group in the US. “Not all use them well.”

As we battle the Internet, television and new media for the reader’s attention we don’t have many weapons in our armoury. One of the best is the quote. You were just drawn in by one from John Campbell.

Until television came along, quotes were mostly just that… slabs of direct speech used by reporters to lend variety to their reported speech. Like this: John Smith told the Senate it was high time the federal government spent more on education and training so that Australia could be more productive and competitive.

“Despite the downturn, many Australian businesses cannot find the staff they need to compete against companies overseas that have lower labour costs and a better trained pool of talent to draw from,” he told senators.

In the second paragraph the writer has simply reproduced a slab of Smith’s speech using his exact words. The quote is not used for any other purpose than to give an illusion of variety – to break long paragraphs of reported speech.

Reporters were – sometimes still are – taught to write like that: Using direct speech simply to give variety to reported speech. But employing quotes like that, in the words of John Campbell, is “not using them well.” The modern quote is a different thing altogether. It was television that began it. TV directors quickly found that voiceover reporting quickly becomes boring. TV needs sights to see, sounds to hear, and things to happen.

Television directors responded with the sound bite, a snippet of video used to punctuate, emphasise or add credibility to a voice-over report. Their use quickly spread to radio which began using “actuality” snippets of speech and background sound to punctuate reporters’ accounts.

Finally the sound bite spread to newspapers and magazines, replacing lengthy slabs of direct speech: the modern quote. Like their TV counterparts, sound bite-style quotes are brief: “One sentence is preferable,” according to John Campbell, “two is often okay, but three is usually one too many.”

(That last quote was a single sentence. Notice how it underlines my point, lends credibility to what I’m writing and gives you a welcome change of pace from my words – the perfect modern quote).

There are times where the importance of exactly what was said in full is needed for legal and other reasons – the Treasurer’s Budget speech for example, or an important policy statement by a chief executive in a company publication.

But in both these cases interpretive reports using sound bite-style quotes are still needed and the full text can be carried separately and cross-referenced (for those who need it or have the time).

So powerful have sound bites become that most political speeches are written around them. Successful writers in politics and corporate affairs know how hungry reporters are for snappy quotes.

Think of Reagan’s “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” or Thatcher’s “This lady’s not for turning.” As journalism evolves in the wake of the Internet, sound bite-style quotes are finding a still broader role. With readers having the same access to raw news as journalists, they know immediately what has happened.

But, ironically, they rely on writers more than ever for interpretation and insight: for why it happened. But they are more demanding too: they expect writers to know their subjects and provide credible evidence from multiple named sources.

And the best way of answering that demand – you guessed it – is lots of sound bite-style reinforcing quotes. So you might write, as in this article from Development Asia magazine:

Despite a temporary spike in remittances in some countries (like Pakistan) resulting from jobless workers returning home with cash, estimates for 2009 are for global transfers to fall between 9% and 20% – between $US25 billion and $US67 billion.

“The potential drop is huge,” says Massimiliano Cali, Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a British independent think tank on international development.

Notice something here: the writer is relaying the information, not his sources. The sound-bite style quote conveys little actual information. The writer uses it mainly to reinforce what he has said, to gain credibility.

One caution: in your quest for credibility, don’t reinforce one point with more than one quote.

“One quote is plenty for each assertion,” says Sydney writing expert Peter Semicolon. “Writers should never use no more than one quote for each point,” says Frank Lyspeaking, Professor of Journalism at Alice Springs. “One reinforcing quote is enough,” adds Ed Itor, a prominent Brisbane newspaperman.

“Those last two quotes are redundant, repetitive, unnecessary, superfluous and excessive,” says Hugh Vaughan-Williams, a US-based editorial consultant. That last quote grabs attention, reinforces the point, and contains minimal information. The perfect sound bite… if I do say so myself.