Sound is incredibly visual.

Back in college, one of my profs, the legendary Steve Bolton, had this poster in his office that said “I saw it on the radio”. For years I thought this was just a joke, but I later realized that it may have been more insightful than I initially thought.

Before I got into audio branding, I spent the first ten years of my career in radio. In the radio industry, people often use the term “theatre of the mind”. I’ve never really cared for this term because it implies that your presentation needs to be a big elaborate production to get a point across. This approach works well with audio books, podcasts, and radio plays. Long-form audio formats give you all the time in the world to set the scene with elaborate descriptions.

The problem is we don’t usually have this kind of time in the marketing world. An audio-only commercial might be fifteen to thirty seconds long. Not much time there for elaborate descriptions.

If you’re going to make an impact with audio-only media, you need to make the distinction between theatre of the mind and imagery. Imagery is implicit rather than explicit. One of the ways we achieve this is through carefully placed sound effects. You could go off on an elaborate description of a forest setting, but with some birdsong, blowing trees, and even the sound of brush underfoot, your listener is already there.

It’s also important to consider where these sounds fit in the three-dimensional space. Yes, sound is also three dimensional. Your volume is up and down. The panning is your left and right. And echo, reverb, and room tone will push the sound forward and back. This is an often overlooked tool for creating imagery.

Studios tend to create very close, insular sounds. There’s no reverb, no echo, and no extraneous noise. That’s what you want about 99.9% of the time. But if your production takes place in, say, a parking garage, what better way to set the stage than with the same booming reverb? Heck, you could even record in a parking garage if you’re able. If it’s in the mountains, add some echo. People are hard-wired to interpret these kinds of aural stimuli. Their minds just need a little push in the right direction.

Your audience won’t always hear the words, but they’ll hear the sounds.

Dialogue is also very important. It needs to be natural and realistic to maintain a sense of verisimilitude. In real life, people don’t say things like, “I’m so glad we drove out to this beautiful, green forest”. It feels fake and forced, and it takes the listener out of the moment. It’s much more effective to set the stage with some of the sounds we mentioned earlier, and letting the voices move the story.

Another reason to be careful with your dialogue, is much of it won’t be absorbed anyway. Audio-only media tends to be passively consumed. It’s on while people are doing other things, but at the same time, we hear when we’re not listening. Your audience won’t always hear the words, but they’ll hear the sounds. Elaborate dialogue often works against you when your listener is also working, driving, or cooking.

This is especially true when using elaborate or tenuous metaphors. If you’re using a visual metaphor, and its connection to your brand or message isn’t strong enough, the imagery will backfire. I once heard an ad for a furniture store that was trying to impress upon the listener just how big their sale was. They started off by talking about Godzilla and how massive he was, and then stating that their sale was even bigger. This was immediately followed by what was essentially a flyer in spoken word form (rarely a good idea in this industry). Of course, my mind, which was not focussed directly on the commercial, was still stuck, almost subconsciously, on Godzilla; a much more interesting visual than a bombardment of numbers.

Perhaps the most important part of audio imagery is making sure it fits your brand identity. Not sure which imagery is appropriate for your audio media? Start with your visual guidelines/style guide. Whether you’re just starting to build your sonic identity, or working with an existing one, it’s crucial that you have as much congruency between the two as possible. If you’ve never explored this before, give us a shout to get the conversation starting, because you don’t want your audience to think of atomic monsters when you’re trying to sell furniture.

Thanks to retired Loyalist College professor Steve Bolton for the fish pic. Yes, I still have it.