Select the right words. Say them well.

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In more than 25 years as a reporter, I went from the 30-second soundbite, to the 15-second soundbite to the 11-second to the 7-second and, well, you get the idea. These days if you can say it in 4.5 seconds you stand a chance!

The advertising world has understood this message for years. There’s a reason Nike’s slogan is “Just Do It” and not “Realize Your Dreams, Follow Your Heart, Do Your Best and You’ll be a Winner!” The second version just doesn’t fit neatly on a billboard as you’re buzzing by at 65 mph (in a 45 zone!).

While this is a message about media, it really reaches well beyond the media world. Think of the lawyer giving closing arguments to a jury. The people who sit in that jury box didn’t just land from outer space … most of them spend their life getting messages in bite size pieces, 5-second soundbites and quick slogans. If the lawyer plans to go on and on for hours with his closing arguments, he will be talking to a lot of blank faces. A good teacher also understands this lesson: Hit the high points or you will bore them with the small details.

But does that mean we all have to speak in monosyllables and four word sentences? No, but think about this.

If you are in front of a single client, a live audience or the media, most of the time people want to know what time it is, not how the watch was built!

And if that’s true in general communication, it’s HUGELY true when you deal with the media. While it’s a great idea to provide background and context to reporters, always have your main points in neat, compelling, bite sized sentences:

“This is about safety.”
“Our first concern is for our patients.”
“We want our students to be successful.”
“Quality is our focus everyday.”
“Our job is to look at the details.”

All of these are simple and painfully obvious, but think of this. How do you read a newspaper or watch a newscast? Are you in a quiet room, sitting at attention, focused on each story and every detail? Heck no! And neither is almost anyone else. When you are speaking to the media you have to reach through the reporter to a vast distracted, disconnected and sometimes completely uninformed audience. They don’t have time for all the details on how that watch was built … just tell them what time it is!

Combine that fact with the ever-increasing pressure for brevity and speed inside newsrooms across this country. Everyday news editors and producers are being told, “Make it shorter, quicker, faster … people don’t have time for all the details!” That means even if you have a great quote or sound bite, if it lasts longer than 4.5 seconds or five to six words, chances are it will never see the light of day in a newspaper or newscast.

Coming next month: “Handling the Hot Potatoes. Answering Tough Questions from Live Audiences.”