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What Is a Sound Bite?

By Marissa Meyer
Updated May 23, 2024
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A long speech may be condensed into a phrase, known as a sound bite, which encompasses the meaning behind the entire lecture in a way that is understandable and memorable for people. Since those who listen to and read media may have limited attention spans, information producers avoid repeating speeches that are long and laden with technical terminology. Often, the speakers themselves are encouraged to include clear, concise passages in their dialogue that can be used to summarize their main points. These clips are often then embedded in television, radio, and Internet reports.

Sound bites became frequently used in the 1980s, when consumers began showing a preference for small, memorable bits of information delivered by politicians. These phrases were often repeated by various news sources, including printed publications, radio, and television. Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan became known for producing engaging sound bites, including "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," which he said during a long speech near the Berlin wall in 1987. Although the speech was not typically reproduced in its entirety, the sound bite came to represent Reagan's influence on Communism in Europe.

Reagan's successful use of succinct, memorable tidbits came to inspire more politicians and speechwriters to incorporate the sound bite into their communications. Although most commonly used in politics, celebrities occasionally deliver sound bites during and outside of performances. Some of the most famous clips of dialogue from politicians and celebrities have become hallmarks of popular culture.

Some experts in journalism and ethics are critical of the sound bite. They argue that small phrases removed from their context can be easily spun and manipulated to serve an agenda or otherwise mislead people. Since listeners may be distracted or in a hurry, the sound bite may be the only piece of the report that captures their attention. Media representatives are encouraged to make sure sound bites are fairly representative of the entire speech, and to provide multiple clips of sound, when necessary, to convey the complete message.

Politicians often find it in their best interests to strive for accuracy and honesty in the sound bites they produce. They also must ensure that memorable phrases used in their campaigns do not describe unattainable promises or goals. Since sound bites are memorable, they often stick with the public and political opponents. Many politicians have had their own sound bites used against them when the pieces of dialogue included dishonesty or broken pledges. Some politicians have launched successful campaigns around discrediting sound bites produced by their opponents.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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