Brain Pickings

Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Art of the Soundbite

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“A few words that are informative, make you smile, and are so tasty you might want to tell someone else — there is the anatomy of a soundbite.”

I recently had the pleasure of speaking at the American Museum of Natural History on the topic of popularizing science online, alongside such humbling science communicators as Elise Andrew of I Fucking Love Science, the delightful duo behind AsapSCIENCE (), Emily Graslie of The Brain Scoop, and Annalee Newitz of io9. As if to draw an audience of 900 science enthusiasts wasn’t enough of a treat, at the end of our talk none other than modern-day cosmic sage Neil deGrasse Tyson made a surprise cameo.

Left to right: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Maria Popova, Elise Andrew, Emily Graslie, Mitchell Moffit, Gregory Brown, Annalee Newitz, and AMNH curator Mordecai-Mark Mac Low (Photograph © AMNH/R. Mickens)

After the talk, I got to ask Dr. Tyson — the living antidote to Susan Sontag’s concerns about aphorisms — the following question:

We live in a sort of soundbite culture, where soundbites very frequently become reductionism. And yet you seem so eloquent and articulate, especially on Twitter — a form that does not lend itself to eloquence especially well. How do you balance being very quotable with not being reductionistic?

Apart from the misunderstanding that I’m criticizing his short-form eloquence, when in fact I was complimenting his mastery of the soundbite form, Tyson’s answer is expectedly brilliant, packed with essential media literacy and wisdom for anyone engaged in the art of communication, which is practically everyone with a beating heart and firing neurons. Particularly fantastic is his anecdote of how he learned about the value of the soundbite and taught himself its craft:

Reductionism is one of the words I swore I would never use in my entire life. … I don’t have a problem with soundbites.

[A few] words that are informative, make you smile, and are so tasty you might want to tell someone else — there is the anatomy of a soundbite. And 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 puts in the effort to learn more. … Take the moment to stimulate interest, and upon doing that you have set a learning path into motion that becomes self-driven because that soundbite was so tasty — why do you think we call them bites?

And it’s kind of what Twitter is — it’s almost like haiku, actually. … When I compose a tweet, I feel like [Rodin] who said, “When I make a sculpture, I just cut away everything that isn’t the man or the woman, and then that’s what’s left.” … You trim, you carve the words such that all that’s left is the most important concept communicated in the simplest, most direct way. And that does not mean using big words. So I don’t have a problem with that.

Is it possible to love the man even more? Oh yes, yes it is — I couldn’t resist whipping this wisdom all up into an animated GIF:

For more of Tyson’s wisdom, see his meditations on the secret of genius and the most important fact about the universe.

Should you choose to treat yourself to a mental stimulation break of the longer kind, watch the entire two-hour talk below, then complement it with Richard Feynman on the role of scientific culture in modern society.

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