What Horror Stories Teach You About Media Interviews

When Harvard’s Center for Media and Public Affairs studied the average length of a sound bite in 2000, they found that the typical television quote lasted just 7.3 seconds. It’s probably even shorter today. And that’s down from 42 seconds in 1968. (PDF of study here.)

Since most of us speak an average of two or three words per second, that translates to a measly 18 words per quote.

Many spokespersons complain that they couldn’t possibly say anything of meaning in that short time period. And they’re right—it’s a major challenge. But it is possible.

I recently saw a tweet that contained the “world’s shortest horror story.” It read:

“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.”

Those 17 words send chills down my spine. If you’re like me, you probably created a strong mental picture of the room, how the man was sitting, and the terror he felt when he heard that unexpected knock. With just 17 words, this story elicits a strong visceral reaction.

That tweet made me think of another terrifying line, this one from the 1979 classic horror movie, “When a Stranger Calls.” You may remember the set up to that film: a babysitter is alone in a house with the young children she’s looking after. She keeps getting threatening phone calls. She calls the police, who ask her to keep the caller on the line when he phones again to allow them to trace the origin of the call. She complies. After the police trace it, they call the babysitter back and say:

“We’ve traced the call. It’s coming from inside the house.”

I saw that movie as a teenager. And whenever I’m alone in my house and hear a strange sound, I’m reminded of those 10 terrifying words.

So next time someone tells you it’s impossible to say something of meaning in just 7.3 seconds, remember the lesson from those horror stories. Sometimes, the most evocative ideas require the fewest words.

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