Concise quotes sound better

Why are PR quotes so much longer than media quotes?

Mark Twain once defined a sound bite as “a minimum of sound to a maximum of sense.”

Short sound bites

More sense, less sound If sound bites are, as Mark Twain said, “a minimum of sound to a maximum of sense,” how much sense does a 100+-word PR quote make? Image by Namroud Gorguis

So this quote, from The New York Times’ “Riches to Rags for New York Teenager Who Admits His Story Is a Hoax,” makes a lot of sense. The reporter asks the subject if he had in fact made any money at all.

“No,” he replied.1

But how much sense does this quote, from a release posted on PRNewswire recently, make?

“My partner Rick Sullivan and I are thrilled to announce the addition of MSDP to our portfolio” said Tom Callahan, Managing Director at Lincolnshire. “Under the leadership of a talented management team, MSDP has developed into a world-class performance automotive business managing great brands and boasting key strengths in both ignition and electronic tuning technologies. MSDP provides the ideal partner for Holley, a Lincolnshire portfolio company that is the leading manufacturer and marketer of performance fuel and exhaust systems. Together, these two iconic franchises, Holley and MSDP, will serve future generations of brand conscious street performance enthusiasts, hot rodders and racers with innovative new products and category-leading lines of refreshed, rejuvenated and improved versions of existing products.”

For the reporter’s perspective, I pulled three such quotes for a column I was writing for PRSA Tactics. However, I was able to use only one, because at 100 to 200 words, each sucked up 20% to 40% of my word count.

Mark Twain once defined a sound bite as “a minimum of sound to a maximum of sense.”

That doesn’t make sense at all.

So how long should your corporate quotes be? Keep them to:

1. 20 words or less, plus attribution

Twenty words is the average length of a quote in one issue of The New York Times, which Wylie Communications analyzed a couple of years ago. (We skipped the sports pages.)

We found that, excluding attribution, The New York Times’:

  • Average length of a quote was 19 to 20 words.
  • Median length was 18 words.
  • Most common length, with 22 examples in one day, was 7 words.

Can you write like the Times? Here’s what quotes of this length look like:

20 words:

“An officer can gain no Fourth Amendment advantage,” the chief justice wrote, “through a sloppy study of the laws he is duty-bound to enforce.”2

18 words:

“He knew he was deserting the Army and would be charged, but killing himself was a bigger sin,” said Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, a retired Army psychiatrist who testified for the defense during the sentencing phase of the trial.3

7 words:

“You can predict behavior you can’t observe,” said Aleksander Obabko, a computational engineer at Argonne.4

As long as you’re writing like the Times, why not target the news giant’s 7-word most-common length instead of its 20-word average?

Benchmark your preferred media outlets. How long are their quotes? How long are yours?

2. Pass the 1-2-3 Test.

When you write quotations, usually:

  • 1 sentence is enough.
  • 2 are OK.
  • 3 are too many.

So DO write quotes like these, from the Times:

1 sentence (15 words):

“You would think increased competition would cause price to go down, but it’s the opposite,” said Dr. Stein, the study’s author, who was then a student at Temple University School of Medicine.5

2 sentences (16 words):

“The climate is now out of equilibrium with the ice sheets,” said Andrea Dutton, a geochemist at the University of Florida who studies global sea levels. “They are going to melt.”6

3 sentences (17 words):

“I said, ‘Listen David,’” Mr. Koch recalled, “‘You want me to kill my mother? Tell me what time and where?’”7

DON’T write quotes like this — a 4-sentence, 177-word quote from a release on PR Newswire:

“Operating results were in line with our expectations for the seasonally small quarter. We were pleased with the solid growth in our trade business, both in the U.S. and internationally, confirming the expanding market for quality children’s books,” said Richard Robinson, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer. “As we begin the new school year, educators and families are still adapting to higher standards and more challenging tests, and are more focused than ever on independent reading as a critical tool to help young people develop higher level thinking skills that lead to success. The need for more books that kids want to read is a key growth driver for all of our businesses, including our Education segment which delivered first quarter gains in classroom books and summer reading book packs. With its closely aligned core businesses, Scholastic is in a unique position to offer customizable, comprehensive literacy solutions, including books for independent reading delivered through clubs and fairs, classroom magazines and instructional reading and writing programs, along with consulting and services for Professional Learning and Family and Community Engagement and Learning Supports, in tailored offerings to meet the specific needs of its customers.”

That’s a maximum of sound to a minimum of sense.

3. Even better: Make it 1 sentence.

Did I say 1-2-3? Let’s make it 1.

“Peel back the quote to one great sentence,” suggests Jacqui Banaszynski, associate managing editor at The Seattle Times.

Carving out the most provocative sentence alone can make your quote more interesting. Indeed, some of the most interesting quotes in The New York Times were just one sentence long.

Model quotes like these, from the Times:

“You would think increased competition would cause price to go down, but it’s the opposite,” said Dr. Stein, the study’s author, who was then a student at Temple University School of Medicine.8

And:

When [Pope Francis] identified himself, the astonished telephone operator at the Jesuit Curia said his first thought was, “Sure, and I’m Napoleon.”9

And:

“This is a marker of poor care,” he said.10

And:

“You have to be disruptive,” he added.11

And stop writing quotes like this — a 4-sentence, 177-word quote from a release on PR Newswire:

“My partner Rick Sullivan and I are thrilled to announce the addition of MSDP to our portfolio” said Tom Callahan, Managing Director at Lincolnshire. “Under the leadership of a talented management team, MSDP has developed into a world-class performance automotive business managing great brands and boasting key strengths in both ignition and electronic tuning technologies. MSDP provides the ideal partner for Holley, a Lincolnshire portfolio company that is the leading manufacturer and marketer of performance fuel and exhaust systems. Together, these two iconic franchises, Holley and MSDP, will serve future generations of brand conscious street performance enthusiasts, hot rodders and racers with innovative new products and category-leading lines of refreshed, rejuvenated and improved versions of existing products.”

That’s a lot of sound.

So what if we peeled that quote back to one great sentence?

1. First, highlight the most interesting parts of the quote.

Digging through all of the chest-pounding and self-adulation, I find this promising phrase:

“… street performance enthusiasts, hot rodders and racers …” Click To Tweet

2. Now peel it back to one great sentence

.
If there’s nothing to interest readers in the quote, you might have to go out and dig up more details. Note that I’ve left a spot here for reader benefits:

“Hot rodders, racers and other street performance enthusiasts will now be able to do XX better, thanks to our merger,” Callahan says.

Take the one-sentence-quote pledge: Try limiting your quotes to a single sentence for the next month, and watch your sound bites become tighter and more interesting.

3. Aim for 8 to 14 words.

But how long’s a sentence?

Aim for 8 to 14 words per sentence. At that length, according to research by the American Press Institute, and readers will understand 90% to 100% of your sentence, regardless of whether it’s quoted material.

For instance, this 3-sentence, 111-word PR quote is boring and hard to understand:

“We are pleased to begin collaborating with NESI, a comprehensive solar developer, and believe that together our companies will drive the adoption of BIPV and agricultural solar applications in China,” commented Mr. Gang Wang, Vice President of Sales of Yingli Green Energy. “Our new partnership with NESI exemplifies Yingli’s strategic effort to expand relationships with China’s leading private enterprises, which has resulted in 350 MW of supply agreements with cash before delivery in 2015. With demand expected to grow in China through the second half of 2015, Yingli is focused on expanding our domestic footprint by strengthening our customer relationships and continuing to supply our high-quality products to this key market.”

In fact, with its average sentence length of 28 words, according to the American Press Institute, that quote will get less than 60% understanding.

In other words, it makes almost no sense.

This 3-sentence, 39-word quote from The New York Times, on the other hand, is much more interesting and easier to read:

“I said, ‘Listen David,’” Mr. Koch recalled, “‘You want me to kill my mother? Tell me what time and where?’”12

At an average of 13 words a sentence, that quote will get more than 90% comprehension, according to the American Press Institute’s research.

In case your reviewers have never seen 8- to 14-word sentences, here’s what the Times quotes look like at that length:

8 words:

“Why would that be?” Mr. Charlap asked. “It really bothered me.”13

9 words:

“No matter what I did, I couldn’t find peace,” he said.14

10 words:

“Fear tends to make people’s estimates based on intuition worse,” Dr. Townsend said.15

11 words:

“Even if the anxieties are unwarranted, they need to be addressed,” Dr. Horvitz said.16

12 words:

“We can’t even walk in our own parks,” he said. “It makes no sense.”17

13 words:

“It’s the new Wild West out there, and I had to learn quickly,” he said.18

14 words:

“We don’t want to have pollution like a city in China — we are Paris,” he said.19

Want people to understand your sound bite? Keep it to 8 to 14 words.

4. Try super-short quotes occasionally.

A super-short quote — just like a super-short sentence or paragraph — can make a point stronger, serve as a transition, even change the pace of your message.

So take a tip from the Times, and try quotes of:

7 words:

“You can predict behavior you can’t observe,” said Aleksander Obabko, a computational engineer at Argonne.20

6 words:

“We believe we’ve shut it down,” Mr. Carey said after the news conference, though he added that residents in New Jersey’s large Indian-American population should remain vigilant.21

5 words:

Mr. Conditsis described the 16-hour seizure of the cafe, which also left two hostages dead, as “the ultimate cry for attention.”22

4 words:

In 1977, when Mario M. Cuomo was running for mayor against Mr. Garth’s come-from-behind creation, Edward I. Koch, Mr. Cuomo sardonically demanded: “What hath Garth wrought?”23

3 words:

Called the “great train robber” by The Daily Mail, Mr. Burrows was stopped on Nov. 19, 2013, at the exit gates of the Cannon Street Station in London for not buying a ticket while traveling on a Southeastern commuter train to London from East Sussex.24

2 words:

A classroom for older children had computers and a sign saying: “Welcome! Bienvenido!”25

1 word

The newspaper asked Mr. Islam if he had in fact made any money at all.

“No,” he replied.26

Shorter’s better.

Why so short?

Because short quotes sound better. They’re easier to read and understand. They’re sharper and more substantive.

“Even a lame quote will sound better if it’s brief,” writes Jim Ylisela Jr., president of Duff Media Partners.

He’s right, you know. It just makes sense.

How long are your quotes?
How short could you make them?

  • Write Killer Bites

    Turn lame-ass quotes into scintillating sound bites

    Half of reporters complain that quotes in releases don’t sound natural, according to a 2014 Greentarget survey. Maybe that’s why 78% of them don’t regularly use quotes from releases.

    Write Killer Bites: Turn lame-ass quotes into scintillating sound bites

    No wonder! As one of my clients says, “Quotes in news releases sound like the teacher in a Charlie Brown cartoon: ‘Wah wah wah wah.’”

    Transform your quotations from bleh to brilliant.

    At NOT Your Father's News Release — our two-day hands-on PR-writing master class on Sept. 6-7 in Atlanta — you’ll learn how to transform your quotations from bleh to brilliant. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

    • Write tight bites. Even a lame quote will sound better when you use our quote length targets.
    • Put a quota on quotes. Steal a trick from The New York Times to avoid overquoting.
    • Write quotes that sound human — not like a computer spit them out.
    • Avoid the worst PR clichés. PR Newswire sees 1,284 of these in a single month.
    • Steal techniques from Silver Anvil winners. Make your sound bites sound better.

______

[1]Riches to Rags for New York Teenager Who Admits His Story Is a Hoax,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[2] Court Rules for a Mistaken Police Officer,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[3]Army Deserter Is Jailed for Chasing the Conflicts That Steadied His Mind,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[4] “Betting on the Need, Scientists Work on Lighter, Cleaner Nuclear Energy,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[5]The Odd Math of Medical Tests: One Scan, Two Prices, Both High,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[6] 3.6 Degrees of Uncertainty,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[7]David Garth, 84, Dies; Consultant Was an Innovator of Political TV Ads,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[8]The Odd Math of Medical Tests: One Scan, Two Prices, Both High,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[9]Shaping a Shepherd of Catholics, From Argentine Slums to the Vatican,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[10]Death in Bronx Shows Vulnerability of State’s Nursing Home Residents,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[11]France Says It Will Ban Uber’s Low-Cost Service in New Year,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[12]David Garth, 84, Dies; Consultant Was an Innovator of Political TV Ads,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[13]The Odd Math of Medical Tests: One Scan, Two Prices, Both High,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[14]Army Deserter Is Jailed for Chasing the Conflicts That Steadied His Mind,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[15]Fewer Ebola Cases Go Unreported Than Thought, Study Finds,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[16]Study to Examine Effects of Artificial Intelligence,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[17]Police Patrols in New York Public Housing Draw Scrutiny,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[18]After Working in Film, a Queens Man Hopes for a Life in Technology,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[19]A Plan to Limit Cars in Paris Collides With French Politics,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[20]Betting on the Need, Scientists Work on Lighter, Cleaner Nuclear Energy,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[21]4 Arrested in Home Invasions Targeting Indian-Americans in New Jersey Suburbs,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[22]Gunman in Sydney Had Long History of Run-Ins With the Law,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[23]David Garth, 84, Dies; Consultant Was an Innovator of Political TV Ads,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[24]Fund Manager in London Who Dodged Train Fares Is Barred From Financial Jobs,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[25]Detention Center Presented as Deterrent to Border Crossings,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

[26]Riches to Rags for New York Teenager Who Admits His Story Is a Hoax,” The New York Times, Dec. 15, 2014

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!


Free writing tips
  • Get tips, tricks & trends for Catching Your Readers
  • Learn to write better, easier & faster
  • Discover proven-in-the-lab writing techniques