Water Hub Blog

How to craft soundbites that stick

More people than ever before are turning to social media and TV for news, scrolling and channel surfing to get the gist of the day’s top stories. In this short attention span world, we have to draw people in with bite-sized content that packs a punch. 

That’s where soundbites come in: they’re short and striking, designed to catch people’s attention and connect to their emotions so they’ll want to learn more. 

According to Wikipedia, the term soundbite comes from the 1970’s, and was first used to describe snippets of political speeches that TV producers included in news broadcasts. I imagine those producers doodling on yellow notepads while listening to talking heads drone on, and then snapping to attention when they heard something that felt worthy to air on the evening news. 

That’s what we’re after: that gem that makes people perk up and take notice!

TV is still a great format to think about when crafting your soundbites, because TV news stories are SO short, but soundbites can be used on any platform, from radio to Instagram to email. 

Soundbites that Stick

Here are a few soundbites from recent water news we’ve found impactful:

  • Water is a human right, but our current water systems are a breeding ground for environmental racism and trauma. — Monica Lewis-Patrick of We the People of Detroit in The Guardian.
  • We’ve known for centuries that lead is a poison. Yet, across our country, lead is like the straw through which we’re getting drinking water. — Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha from Flint, MI in Bloomberg Law
  • Water is basic PPE. — Jonathan Nelson of Community Water Center in the Fresno Bee

What do these soundbites have in common? 

  • They’re visual. You can picture a breeding ground, a straw, PPE like masks and gloves.
  • They pack an emotional punch. Words like breeding ground and poison hit hard, and the idea of protection during a pandemic also strikes a chord.
  • They tap into values, like human rights, health, and safety.
  • They can stand alone. You don’t need a whole lot of context to feel the impact.

3 Key Ingredients for Creating Good Soundbites

It’s a lot easier to spot a good soundbite than it is to craft one. So, we often start with longer form prose first. Get clear on messaging for your campaign or cause (The Opportunity Agenda has a great message development tool here). Draft those talking points. And then distill, distill, distill. Think about which parts of the issue tend to elicit the biggest reaction from friends or family members when you explain what you’re working on. Workshop those key points to develop language that is:

  • Sensory: What does it look, sound, smell, feel, like? I really like how Circle of Blue asked neighbors to describe the smell of harmful algal blooms in Clear Lake here. I can relate to the smell of baby diapers and dog poop!
  • Simple and relatable: Technical terms like water quality impairments and best management practices, etc. don’t mean a lot to the average person, and can tend to dehumanize our issues. Use simple language instead, like “a lake too polluted for swimming and fishing,” or “river-friendly farming.” 
  • Specific: Rather than talking about health impacts in general, describe them: itchy, watery eyes, high rates of asthma, lifelong learning challenges, etc. 

At the Water Hub, we often brainstorm soundbites (or headlines, email subject lines, social posts) over Slack throughout the course of the day. The best idea may come in the evening while you’re sauteeing onions or watering the garden, so let your brain keep turning over images and metaphors in the background while you do other things.  

Putting It Into Practice

During our recent soundbites workshop, Maleeka Marsden from Climate Action Campaign asked for help brainstorming language around stormwater infrastructure challenges and needs. 

We didn’t have any immediate bolts of brilliance, so we started talking it out. Many people don’t know what stormwater is, so first let’s make it clear–– this is rain running off our roofs and roads. We can frame it as a trash to treasure thing: this is a valuable resource (especially in the increasingly dry West!), and we should catch it where it falls rather than flushing it away. 

Then in terms of the problems posed by stormwater, we thought about the lawn chemicals, pet waste, motor oil, and trash that rain can carry into waterways. People intuitively understand that there’s icky stuff on the sidewalk. So what about playing with the idea: “if you wouldn’t want to track it into your house, you don’t want it washing into our rivers.” 

Some other fun stormwater soundbites we’ve used or come across: 

Replacing pavement with plants (or concrete with canopy!) in our neighborhoods.

Turning our cities from a grey funnel to a green sponge. 

You can watch the full hour-long soundbites workshop below. It includes ideas from digital director, Jessica Jewell Lanier, on repurposing soundbites as quote cards on social media, listicle-style blogs, email subject lines, and even live videos. 

Don’t hesitate to drop us a line if we can help you workshop soundbites on your issues!

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The Water Hub