Soundbites, summaries and the dangers of oversimplification

Image: Conservatives

Image: Conservatives

A soundbite is an excerpt or a summary of a long speech or policy, used in order to convey the gist of what someone is saying or arguing when they are short on space and time. They seem to be used all the time by politicians, and more often than not they are a pain in the neck.

‘Soundbite speeches’ are a nuisance in politics today. The message may be an expression of a party’s view, but the way in which it is presented seems to be that of an inventor presenting his new invention, so keen to earn a patent that he insults anyone who could possibly have been around him when he devised his fantastic device. Politicians in the media grab the limelight not just to present their policies in summary form but also to convince the public why every other party is composed of numbskulls and lackwits, or even “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”, whose policies will only lead to anarchy and destruction.

We find scores of figures peddling the same messages over and over again. For example, take the Conservatives on the BBC’s Question Time in October. “The plan is working,” said the Chairman of the Conservatives, Grant Shapps, on the 2nd. “Every single Labour government in history has left unemployment higher than when they went in, and that’s why you end up with bigger deficits and bigger debts,” said the Chairman; “we have a plan that is working” repeated the Minister for Disabled People on the 23rd, who seemed to be the Conservatives’ latest model off the production line, the Grant Shapps 2.0, programmed not only to spout the same rhetoric but also to slander the Labour Party. “That’s a plan that Labour doesn’t have… The Labour Party doesn’t have an economic plan, unemployment went up when they were in power, every single Labour government there has ever been in history has had unemployment higher at the end of it than when it came into office”. Plans working, unemployment always high under Labour – don’t the words of the Chairman and the Minister seem so very similar, and consequently so empty? And all of it is presented as rhetoric without justification.

Let’s stay on comments about the Labour Party from the Conservative Party for the moment. November seemed to be the month for talking about the financial mess, with the Minister for Planning and Housing proclaiming, “If we look at Labour, we’re talking about the two Eds who were advisors to Gordon Brown that got us into this mess, against David Cameron and George Osborne who have taken us out of the problems we had, growing our economy…”. Did the Secretary of State for Wales watch the programme at home and feel compelled to regurgitate it as best he could a week later, but this time with a little more spice? “They didn’t apologise for the financial mess they left this country in, they voted against and tried to block every step that we were taking to restore stability and order to our national finances…” Just like the Chairman and the Minister for Disabled People: further empty words!

But it’s not just the leaders of the parties that employ this oversimplifying technique – the online world is awash with 140-character expressions of nonsense and jargon which sometimes lead to unbelievable spats and chaos. Imagine if politicians made 140-character speeches at their Party Conferences? How could anything be meaningfully discussed? Much better to outline your policies and ideas fully and clearly in manifestos (though they are also turning into soundbite novels), articles and speeches, as I and every other student journalist and columnist in Nouse and beyond hopes to do. It may be easier and quicker to simplify your beliefs due to time or word constraints, but soundbites so very easily lead to oversimplification, where key ideas and thoughts that allow an argument to make sense can be omitted, sadly too often in favour of slander and insults.

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