How To Craft Sound Bites Like Neil DeGrasse Tyson
Neil DeGrasse Tyson is one of the best science communicators ever.
But, he wasn't born that way. In this clip, he shares his step-by-step approach for the first time.
But before we jump in, it’s worth setting some context in case you haven’t watched dozens of NGT clips over the years like I have...
Here’s Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Eloquence On Display
This is a clip from a 2022 appearance on a Theo Von podcast episode:
This clip features Tyson at his best…
First, he rattles off specific numbers from the top of his head:
The number of people who have ever existed (100 billion)
The number of people that could theoretically exist based on all combinations of our genes (million trillion trillion)
Then, he breaks down what it means with sensory detail:
What it means is you are alive against stupendous odds. You are breathing air, observing sunsets, gazing into the night sky.
Next, he provides a unique perspective that helps us see life (and even death) as a gift we should be grateful for:
Most people who could exist will never experience that. In fact, as Richard Dawkins has said, brilliantly, ‘you get to die.’ And he said, ‘I don't wanna die.’
Most people who could exist will never even be born. And you're gonna complain about the life you have.
Finally, he provides us with an inspiring and emotional call to action:
Use it, develop it. Do all you can within your power and the power of others who love you to, to maximize what you can be, what you can think, what you, you can learn how you can love all of this.
If you’ve ever wondered how he comes up with these poetic lines seemingly off the top of his head, then this post is for you.
If you’ve ever wondered how you can speak more like Tyson yourself, then this post is for you.
With that context set, let’s jump in…
This Is Tyson’s Eloquence Origin Story
It was 1995.
Tyson had just become the interim director of the American Museum of Natural History.
And there was big news afoot... The first ever planet orbiting a star that was not the sun was just discovered.
Given his role, NBC wanted a quote from him.
Excited, Tyson prepared a very detailed, professorial reply.
On the day of the broadcast (we're talking pre-YouTube), he rushed home to watch the interview.
To his shock, almost his entire interview had been cut. The only thing that was left was him doing a silly hula hoop dance to show the orbit and a sound bite.
Now, here's where things get interesting.
At this point, most scientists would've thumbed their nose at the reporter and just gone on with business as normal.
Tyson was different.
He decided to rethink his entire approach to communicating science.
Here are his 2 big takeaways...
Lesson #1: Don't Look Down On Sound Bites
To become good at something, we first must value it enough for us to devote the time to master it.
Many scientists simply don't value sound bites. They'd rather use jargon and speak precisely and comprehensively.
Tyson did the opposite:
I thought to myself at that moment, even though they're interviewing me in my place, it's actually for them, in their place. And in their place, sound bites rule.
They can compress World War III into a 4-minute story. Everything is a sound bite.
So I said, rather than have them sound bite me, why don't I hand them sound bites? They can't edit that. They gotta use them as sound bites.
So, Tyson justifies the value of sound bites on a very practical level... If we want the media to report on science, we need to translate it into their language.
He also goes a step further by saying that the purpose of sound bites isn't accurate explanation. Rather, it's drumming up interest in the student to learn more.
Don't think that soundbites aren't useful if they don't contain a curriculum. A soundbite is useful because it triggers interest in someone who then goes and then puts in the effort to learn more.
Lesson #2: He Practices Sound Bites In Front Of The Mirror
So I stood there in front of a mirror and I just barked out Saturn, rings, black hole, Big Bang, Alpha Centauri, Earth core, comets. And for every one of those words, I said, what are three sentences I can put together that are informative, make you smile, and are so tasty you might want to tell someone else? There is the anatomy of a sound bite.
In other words, Tyson:
Identified all of the key ideas he communicated regularly
Found a way to explain each of those ideas in three sentences
Used the following criteria: (1) Informative (2) Funny (3) Share-worthy
Practiced saying them aloud in the mirror
The Big Picture
I’ve been deliberately studying learning how to learn since 2010. Over and over again across every field, what appears to be overnight genius turns out to be a result of at least a decade of practice (see 10,000-Hour Rule) and experimentation (see 10,000-Experiment Rule).
In 2013, I decided I wanted to master the skill of thought leadership. So, I broke down the skill into sub-skills (see 100-Hour Rule):
Alignment (getting clarity on goals, voice, value, etc.)
Strategy (making decisions on platform, format, medium).
Research (learning the best of what other people have figured out)
Ideation (turning other people ideas into your own)
Hook (identifying the most attention-grabbing parts of the idea)
Packaging (idea names, quotes, titles, visuals)
Production (outlining, writing, editing)
Publishing (publishing, clipping and promotion)
Then, I broke those down into sub-skills.
Finally, for each step, I meticulously:
Found the top performers in the world for that skill
Modeled what they did differently (hacks, habits, decisions, mindsets, etc)
Experimented with what I learned in my own way
With that said, I see Tyson’s sound bite ability fitting in the skill chain in this way:
Packaging (broad skill): Communicating the essence of your idea in such a way that others share it on social media and within there own content.
Quotes (micro skill). Sharing your ideas in text in such a concise and interesting way that others quote it.
Some people really specialize in quotes, and I admire them for it. A few thought leaders on Twitter that have really mastered this ability that you can see in the wild are:
I’ve spent hundreds of hours collecting the top quotes in the world and analyzing their rhetorical patterns. I provide access to a template with all of the rhetorical devices and how to use them in my thought leadership course (next cohort starts in September).
I’ve personally learned this skill to conscious competence. My next step is becoming unconsciously competent at it.
After I have a few weeks of this newsletter under my belt, I plan to create one quote per post so that I get a little bit better at the skill every day.
A Shortcut To Become A “Quotable Creator” (For Paid Subscribers)
The good news is that there are simple formulas we can use to become more quotable. The bad news is that it takes awhile for these to become automatic.
Fortunately, I’ve found a very simple ChatGPT hack that can make you a world-class quote creator in 2 minutes rather than 100 hours…