"Soundbites" get a bad rap.  Glib, empty, manipulative media-driven slogans, right?

Well, yes and no.  Certainly, the airwaves are full of glib sloganeering.  But every serious communicator still has to decide:  How can I translate my key messages into clear language that this audience will hear, understand and remember?

Call it what you will -- a soundbite, "sticky" message, creative metaphor or "zinger" -- but if you want them to hear and remember what you say, your messaging had better feature the "Seven C's."   It has to be:

  • Clear
  • Correct. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .100%
  • Concise. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .extremely
  • Core. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .hits your key point.  Dig deep.   Be profound.
  • Considerate. . . . . . . . . . . .not offensive to skeptics or anybody else
  • Compelling. . . . . . . . . . . . .touches mind, heart and gut.
  • Catchy. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .i.e. "sticky," memorable

This is especially true when you only have a few seconds or minutes, as in a short interview.  But it is also true for longer talks.  Two days after a 45-minute talk, if you're really good, your audience may remember one or two things you said.  Ask yourself:  Of my many brilliant insights, which one will "stick?"  The answer should be obvious:  Whichever point has the most "zing" to it.  If you give your most important point a bit of "zing," t will have a fighting chance to be remembered.

The "holy grail" for a good soundbite?   Think about the classic one-line proverbs that have reverberated through the millenia, across many cultures.   The Golden Rule.  Now that's sticky messaging!  (see Made to Stick, by Chip & Dan Heath.)

Don't get us wrong. Effective messaging is only one factor in effective communication. And effective communication is only one element in changing minds.   And changing minds is only a small part of social change.

While soundbites are often necessary for effective communication, they are never sufficient.  First and foremost, you have to be ready to back up your one-liners with facts, the full science behind them. (Most "Bites" on CB include links to the science.)  Other well-known principles of effective communication include being credible, knowing your audience, making a personal connection, finding common ground and shared values, weaving a compelling narrative, and balancing realism with optimism. (See more in "Tips for Effective Communication" under "Tools.")

The bottom line:   Though they are just one piece of the puzzle, soundbites matter.  A lot of top climate communicators agree:

David Roberts, staff writer, Grist. "Talking with Andy Revkin about climate communication." March 14, 2011.

The language of science is notoriously poor, not only at generating urgency and action but even at generating understanding. It's just not a language most people speak or understand. It's a specialized way of talking.

There is, or should be, nothing wrong at all in communicating with the public in the kind of language people do understand, the language of metaphor, analogy, and parable, the language of imagery and association, the language of values and meaning. Doing so is not "inaccurate" and it's not a political liability. It's just common sense.

Dr. Richard Somerville, Research Professor, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, in Communicating on Climate Change, 2008. p. 39.

"We are all struggling for better metaphors to inform the public that the human fingerprint is discernable now."

Bud Ward, editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, "Improving Climate Literacy," April 12, 2009.

"This issue aches for good metaphors. This issue, climate change, hurts for good metaphors."

Dr. Steven H. Schneider (1945-2010), a climate science pioneer and one of the first to recognize the importance of public speaking. Unabridged interview with Steven Schneider, Liz Neeley, July 21, 2010

Q: What advice would you give a scientist just starting out?

A: First, have your soundbite. Have it based on metaphors that convey both urgency and uncertainty.

Second, have a hierarchy of backup products.. So you have an oped. You write for Scientific American, Atlantic Monthly or Seed – that's getting better; that's 20 minutes, it's a little bit of depth. Then you can have full length websites or books, where you can do your due diligence of telling the whole story.....

The trouble is, this pyramid is upside down. Up here, you get on the evening news, you get 10 million [listeners] Down here, you get an op-ed, maybe 1 million Then you write a Scientifc American article, you get 100,000. Then you write your books and websites, you get 10,000...

You want everybody to know the detailed story you find so compelling and important.... [But] if you don't put yourself in the soundbite world, even fewer people are going to read your book....

Dr. Ed Maibach, Director of the Center for Climate Change Communication, George Mason University, speaking at the 2010 AGU fall meeting, on "Insights from 'Climate Change in the American Mind,' Audience Research Project," Dec 5, 2011

Successful public education campaigns require "simple clear messages, repeated often, by a variety of trusted audiences."

"The less you say, the more you are heard.  Identify your key points, then say them simply and concretely. . . [and] make it easy for the people you are engaging to repeat those points to other people."