Shakespeare and the Sound Bite

William Shakespeare's words live today because he knew how to turn a phrase that could speak volumes and last centuries.The Bard of Avon still commands an audience today because of his riveting use of language, including a mint of memorable sound bites he coined 400 years ago.

Those of us who manage public issues don't need lines with a 400-year shelf life. But we do need phrases that resonate with audiences and convey our meaning in a quick, familiar way.

William Shakespeare was the world's first quotation machine. Before radio, television and the Internet, the master phrasemaker originated sound bites that remain an active part of our modern-day lexicon:

  • Play fast and loose

  • One fell swoop

  • Salad days

  • Cold comfort

  • Pomp and circumstance

  • Tower of strength

  • Foul play

  • Foregone conclusion

  • Flesh and blood

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations says Shakespeare accounts for one-tenth of the quotable utterances written or spoken in English. He was definitely good at turning a phrase that sticks in your mind.

That's exactly what modern communicators need to do when addressing a crisis or preserving a reputation. Quotable phrases get quoted. Dull discourse, even when it contains a brilliant point, is easy to bypass in a quick interview or a fast-moving incident. If you want to be noticed and acknowledged, you need to learn how to create and use sound bites.

You need to know how to make your point, as well as how to make your point stick. Shakespeare offers useful tutelage. Here are a couple of tips gleaned from the bard's pen:

1. "To thine own self be true"

Stick to the facts, making sure what you say is true. That is the best assurance you have to protect your long-term reputation.

2. "The milk of human kindness"

When crafting what you say, think about familiar imagery to connect with your audience. Metaphors can act like short stories to convey complex meaning.

3. "Be cruel to be kind"

A good way to make your point is to use contrast. Comparison and irony also can be arresting techniques to underline your key message.

4. "The wish is father to the thought"

Epigrams are harder to create, but pack a lot of punch. A pithy statement can take root in people's minds to give your statement staying power.

5. "Go down the primrose path"

Many young people greet messages with blank stares because their readings don't include them. If you are reaching out to a youthful audience, make sure your sound bites are fresh, using words with current common meaning.

Also beware, an unintended memorable phrase can hang around a hauntingly long time. Just ask GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin about his use of "legitimate rape."

If you find yourself "in a pickle,” follow Shakespeare's example of crafting the clever phrase to say what you mean and have reporters attend your words with "bated breath."