We talk a lot about the power of video, and rightfully so. However, sound can capture and hold attention while stoking the imagination of listeners, which means podcasts and narrated e-books should have a place in your bag of communication tricks.
T.M. Luhrmann, a Stanford anthropologist, wrote a piece in the Sunday New York Times that concluded, "I listen the way I read books as a child, as if I were there watching." Luhrmann is talking about his enjoyment of audiobooks, but his point has wide application.
There is part of our brain, part of our personality tha likes to take flight in imagination. Sound feeds that appetite.
"You don't check back on previous paragraphs or read the last page first when you listen," explains Luhrmann. "You move forward, and what you carry with you is person and event."
Audio transports listeners to a different plane. Sound is the only stimulus, so listeners must conjure the visual images in their own heads.
Most advertisers would pay millions for that kind of focused attention. But the attention is hard to buy. It has to be earned.
Radio and TV pros often refer to "good sound," which can come from quotable or colorful sound bites or compelling stories. Charles Osgood, anchor of CBS News Sunday Morning, ends the popular, long-running show he hosts with a short voiceless video that serves as a meditative send-off for the show's viewers.
Luhrmann says he listens to audiobooks while gardening. He listened to The Great Gatsby while planting 50 polypodium californicas and 50 festuca idahoensis "in the dappled light beneath my oaks." "Now, when I look at them," Luhrmann recounts, "I think about that last awful accident, the yellow Rolls-Royce screaming past the repair shop, and what F. Scott Fitzgerald's narrator called Gatsby's gift for hope."
We tend to think of writing as superior to oral renditions. When books became available after invention of the printing press, average people learned to read, which may be why we accord writing as a higher form of communication. But mankind communicated long before — and pretty much consistently since then — through the oral tradition of voices. The voice itself added and often became a character in a story or a song. As if to prove the point, the TV show "The Voice" features judges who can't see the singers as they perform. All they can do is hear the voice.
Writing gives the sense of permanence, but the spoken word or the heard sound often resonates more deeply within our brain because it blends with our visions of what is said, giving it a more durable and memorable place on our mental bookshelf.
Luhrmann's piece is a timely reminder to include audio on websites and other communications vehicles. Adding audio takes nothing away from photo galleries, video, charts or well-written text. But it can add a lot.
Remember, there are a lot of people connected to their smartphones and tablets with earphones. Audio can engage and inform listeners and, through interactivity, allow them to personalize online experiences. Through sound effects, audio can relocate the minds of listeners from the noisy now to a more comfortable place. The voices we hear can thrill us, move and make us laugh. You never can have too much of that kind of content.