Top 10 quotes of 2010: Brevity (for the most part) is the soul of notoriety

Having your words etched in the collective consciousness is great, huh? Maybe not. Take a look at these doozies from the waning year.

To quote or not to quote, that is the question.

That’s because Yale Law School Associate Librarian Fred Shapiro released his fifth annual list of the “most notable quotations of the year.”

“The key thing to realize about the list of notable quotations of the year is that this is an update to The Yale Book of Quotations,” Shapiro says. “By ‘most notable quotations of the year’ I mean, not necessarily that these are eloquent or admirable quotations, but rather that they are famous or important or revealing of the spirit of our times.”

This list certainly accomplishes his goal.

There are some common elements in most of the quotes. The majority are short, with the two top quotes at just five and six words each. They also tend to be related to negative situations.

Tied for first, the top quotes are, “I’m not a witch,” uttered by Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, a U.S. Senate candidate, in a television campaign ad in early October and, “I’d like my life back,” from Tony Hayward, BP’s then-CEO, talking to reporters last May during the Gulf of Mexico oil crisis.

Although there was a tie for first place, a Google search this week revealed that almost all media named O’Donnell’s quote as quote of the year. Though Tony Hayward’s quote may have impacted far more people, the media went for the more sensationalistic assertion.

Shapiro found it interesting that despite the tie, the media focused on O’Donnell as the winner. “It may be that witches are a more sensational topic than oil spills, or that there is a sexist angle of preferring to run a photograph of an attractive woman rather than a middle-aged male business executive,” he says.

The No. 3 quote came from airline passenger John Tyner, speaking to a TSA screener, “If you touch my junk, I’m gonna have you arrested,” has only 11 words. The quote was seen hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube and even inspired a “Don’t Touch My Junk” T-shirt.

What list would be complete without something from Sarah Palin? Her quote ranks fourth. “Don’t retreat. Instead—reload,” comes in at just four words.

The No. 5 quote, the chant at the Chilean mine rescue, though in another language, has just 10 words (if you count “Chi” and “Le” three times each). “Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le! Los mineros de Chile!” they cried. “Chi Chi Chi Le Le Le” according to several Internet sources is a cheer like the chant, “U-S-A,” The words following the country name translates to “the miners of Chile.”

No. 6 on the list was by far the longest quote, with a whopping 41 words. It was U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle of Nevada during a radio interview saying, “I hope that’s not where we’re going, but you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies. They’re saying: My goodness, what can we do to turn this country around?”

Although lengthy compared with the other quotes, it nevertheless takes only slightly more than 10 seconds to say out loud, still slightly less than the average television sound bite.

In a speech in March, Nancy Pelosi brought the short quote back into the mix with her seventh-ranked quote about the health care bill. It took only 15 words to say, “We have to pass the bill, so you can find out what is in it.”

Basketball star LeBron James drew ire from Cleveland Cavaliers fans in just 10 words: “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach.”

Christine O’Donnell was the only person to make the list twice. Although longer than her top-ranked line, this quote, at No. 9, was still only 16 words. “You’re telling me that the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?”

The No. 10 quote comes from Britain’s then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown during an election campaign last spring. He was talking about a voter he had met, saying in 25 words: “They should never have put me with that woman. … She was just a sort of bigoted woman who said she used to be Labour.” Coming just ahead of the election, many thought it would cost him his job. He lost.

Lessons learned: Keep them short

The lesson here is to be memorable (good or bad), so be short. This is true in traditional media and even more so in social media. After all, when limited to 140 characters, you have to be succinct to get your message out.

The last survey I saw of print media showed the average length of a quote at 23 words. Anecdotally, a random look at lots of blog sites would indicate a longer average, perhaps in the area of 40 words.

But people can’t remember 40-word quotes.

“I am not a witch” is easy.

The other commonality among most is they tend to either be negative in language or topic and are rooted in controversy. Even the Chilean chant was made famous because of a negative event, the miners’ being trapped underground.

It’s hard to pick a top 10. There are others that come to mind including New York gubernatorial candidate Jimmy McMillan’s “the rent’s too damn high” and Sarah Palin’s invention of the word “refudiate.”

Any quotes from this year you’d like to add to the list?

Tripp Frohlichstein is founder of MediaMasters Inc. His firm specializes in media and presentation coaching, along with message development and message mapping. Contact him via e-mail at tr3@aol.com.

Topics: PR

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