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Why sound REALLY matters in Corporate video.

Whether you’re about to commission your first corporate video, or if the next brief you put out to tender forms one of many that you have been involved with, taking the time to read this article might already distinguish you from many of your peers, who choose to ignore the importance of a well-recorded, well-mixed soundtrack.

The sad fact is, even given the proven commercial benefit of delivering high quality sound in music and movies, and the phenomenal uptake of blu-ray, DVD and surround sound within the home, the importance of sound is all too often overlooked in Corporate communications: the very channel that needs to use every trick in the book to engage with its audience – particularly if the message that needs to be told is not necessarily what the audience wants, or is motivated, to hear.

My work as a professional sound practitioner of some thirty years standing in broadcast television and feature films, and my time as a PhD Researcher focussing on ‘Emotion in Sound Design‘, has definitely shown me that there are techniques and an overall approach to sound that can be used to great effect in Corporate video (and you’ll be pleased to hear, it’s a very cost effective and straightforward process.) But best of all, the increase in the effectiveness of your message will come from the simple fact that not many others are thinking about using sound as a full and equal partner to the pictures, or as a means of more effectively getting an organisation’s message across.

It’s pretty much an accepted fact that sound, particularly in the form of music, can affect our mood and the way we feel; and the first studies of emotion with regard to sound in the late nineteenth century were indeed related to music. This coincided with psychology becoming an independent discipline around 1897, although the early peak in studies was seen sometime later, in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Today, a multi-disciplinary approach surrounds the field of emotion in music, and although there is not yet unanimous agreement on whether there are uniquely musical emotions, the field of emotion in music is steadily advancing.

Related to this is my, and a few others, interest in Emotion in sound design; and it is becoming increasingly recognized that as a significant proportion of our day-to-day emotions are evoked by cultural products other than music, contemporary designers should be mindful of emotion in the programmes, products and interfaces that they design, in order to make them richer, more rewarding, or even more challenging to the user.

So what do I mean by suggesting that paying more attention to the sound of your next Corporate video, and particularly the emotions touched on by its sound design, will get your intended message across much more effectively? What are the emotions you can reach through sound?

In his work ‘Literature and the Brain’, Professor Norman Holland of the McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Florida, suggests that a well-designed soundtrack is instrumental in engaging and enveloping a viewing audience; and a listening-viewer absorbed by on-screen activities has a certain type of brain activity taking place – one that is associated with them forgetting their own body and its immediate surroundings, enabling them to be transported to all kinds of otherwise improbable locations and situations. Put simply, stimulate and trigger the emotions of the audience, and a reaction is more than likely to take place.

Central to Professor Holland’s line of reasoning is that an emotion is a disposition to act, or a ‘call to action’, (a phrase we are all too familiar with in the world of Commercials or Corporate video). So how is it then, that when we have our emotions evoked through the sound and pictures we are viewing, we remain seated? This, he suggests, is due to a unique contract with the work we are watching. Even though we are figuratively transported by our emotions towards a certain state of mind, we identify that it is the circumstances of the on-screen activity or character that has aroused these feelings within us; and it is not a direct consequence of us actually being in the represented situation.

In a group viewing scenario this is even more pronounced. Because bodily responses brought about by emotions are visible to others, they in turn bring about mirroring in the viewer: and humans have a tendency to respond to the emotional expressions they see with similar emotions themselves. Holland concludes: ‘As Darwin pointed out in 1890 in his classic ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’, our emotion-driven bodily movements signal to other humans around us. If we are afraid or disgusted, those nearby may have reason to feel afraid or disgusted. If we show anger, they may feel fear or mobilize a “fight or flight” reaction.  Emotions do communicate’.

But mirroring is not the complete picture of a full and immersive emotional involvement with the on-screen subject. Holland goes on to suggest that our own past experiences of circumstances similar to the viewed events are also powerfully evocative; explaining that ‘we bring to bear on what we now see, some feeling or experience from our own past. And my bringing my own past to bear on the here and now of tragedy makes me feel it all the more strongly.’

So what I’m suggesting is that the full range of what human behaviour expert Paul Ekman describes as the ‘Universal Emotions’ of an audience – happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust – are all up for grabs to a skilled Sound Designer when they create a well-crafted soundtrack; one that adds impact and makes the accompanying images more memorable for viewers. Bring this kind of approach to audio – with a matched desire for creating compelling pictures – and you have a powerful combination that can truly affect what people think, know and do. And fully-open them to your message.

How often do we hear in Corporate-speak: ‘Its all about winning Hearts and Minds’? Well, here’s an equation that sums-up what I try to achieve for my Corporate clients, by reaching out to their audience’s emotions with thoughtful Sound Design –

hearts minds - Sound for Moving Pictures

In other words, in your Corporate video, the more you can touch the audience’s emotions and connect with them, the more likely they are to be open to change; and you might even bring about that change in a shorter time than might otherwise be achieved…

OK, by now you’ll be forgiven for thinking that this is starting to sound just a little esoteric for your modest-budget video on managing mortgage arrears, training staff to sell more tyres, exhausts and batteries in repair shops, or even encouraging young male drivers to drive more responsibly. But happily, the use of this ‘Emotional-sound’ knowledge is as equally applicable to a modest-budget video as it is to a mega-budget movie – all it really takes is for you the client to care about your audience and have confidence that you are commissioning an experienced and well-rounded video production company to comprehensively deliver your message.

As a check, I’d recommend that at the pitch-stage, you try asking your short-listed video production company three crucial, but potentially awkward, questions:

1) What are their arrangements for achieving the very best sound on location (production sound) and during the editing (post-production sound) stage?
(Ideally, you’ll hear: ‘We always use a professional sound recordist to record speech on location and we use a dedicated sound suite to mix the final soundtrack.’)

2) Do they have a working relationship with a Sound Design studio?
(Ideally, you’ll hear: ‘We have an established creative partnership with a specialist audio company.’)

3) Can they demonstrate examples of measured success with their films?

(On-line digital platforms provide useful and relevant viewing metrics.)

As you might imagine, my reaction to some of the stock answers I hear from production companies who choose to increase their profit margins at the expense of sound, (often whilst suggesting that their clients or their audience ‘won’t hear the difference anyway’), can make me quite emotional… I’m more than likely to be overcome by all six of those Universal Emotions; and in rather quick succession.

© Dr. Neil Hillman.

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