In last month's issue of Total Politics I had an article looking at the history of the political soundbite. Read the full article here or a summary of what I said is below:
It's common for politicians to be criticised for speaking in soundbites, but the modern terms of engagement between the media and politicians demand that they be used. It's probably true that it was politicians who first recognised this. In the 1950s, as the ad men moved from selling white goods and washing powder to political campaigning, so the modern soundbite was born. John F Kennedy knew what he was doing with "Ich Bin Ein Berliner". However, they remained rare until the birth of 24-hour rolling news in the 1980s. It was then that politics and the media reached tacit agreement as to the content needed to satisfy the hunger of the news channels.
In the past, phrases from speeches or radio broadcasts would get picked up, but often they would need to be given context by a reporter. Come the era of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the choice of phrases changed from standout sentences to stand-alone soundbites, contextualised by the TV pictures that ran alongside them.
There is real skill in delivering a soundbite well. It is essential to make what you're saying believable, and to talk at a level your audience will understand. Don’t fall into the trap of delivering tired political clichés, turning the viewer off what you're saying. While Tony Blair was able to deliver effective soundbites that caught the mood of the nation (“She was the People’s Princess”), he also had the capacity for attracting ridicule (“Now is not the time for soundbites. I can feel the hand of history on my shoulder”).
While the media cry out for brevity, the electorate don’t want their politicians to speak without meaning. It’s a challenge faced by all in the public eye, as they try to get their message across in a 15-second soundbite.