Storytelling with Sound: Radio Commercial Magic

Sound designer recordingGreat commercials require far more storytelling skills than many people realize! A great commercial tells a story and moves the listener emotionally. While we may not enjoy feelings of pain or loss, the truth is, we simply enjoy feeling. We enjoy things, such as media, that tap into our emotions. The best commercials have a few seconds to do what great movies or television shows in a long period. They tell a great story.

Elements of Storytelling

There are many elements to great storytelling, and one of those is sound design. Telling a great story in an hour or more can be hard. Telling a great story in 60 seconds or less only increases the level of difficulty. Master storytellers that only have 30-60 seconds to tell a great story have to use every tool at their disposal, and this is where sound design becomes critical. Great stories immerse the audience into the story. Sound designers are responsible for “setting the scene.”

Visual cues help set the tone of a film and help create a mood. Visual storytellers can show you an image of a cabin and you know you are in the woods.  If the cabin is run-down and shabby looking, the situation may be a little tense. The creators of a radio commercials, however, do not have visual tools to convey stories. They have to set the scene, mood and tone with sound alone. Visual storytellers have visual and audio tools, which work together to create mood, tone and atmosphere. Since radio commercial creators only have audio tools available, they have to become masters of good sound design.

Sound in Storytelling

Great stories invite the audience into the story. Audio tells the audience about the setting and helps them imagine themselves in it. Visual storytelling has the capacity to show the audience the scene, but radio commercials do not. They have to use sound alone.

For instance, if the audience hears the sound of a crowd mingling, clanking glasses and music, they know they are at a party. A utensil tapping on a glass can tell them there is a toast about to be made. Scary or tense music helps to create drama or tension. The soft sounds of waves crashing in the distance can tell a radio audience they are on a beach. Raindrops and loud claps of thunder tells the audience there is a storm. This is how sound helps set the scene.

Sound Creates Emotion

Once again, humans love a great story because of how it makes them feel. This is also true of music. Generally the reason we love or hate certain songs is because of the emotions they cause us to feel. Songs themselves may create certain emotions, while other times we have a reaction to a song because we relate to it. If you had a special song you listened to with a person you recently broke up with, you may try to avoid hearing that song or play it over and over again.

Good sound design involves more than choosing the right music. The sounds of footsteps gently creeping up creaky stairs can create a feeling of suspense. The sound of a lively party in the distance can create a sense of loneliness and isolation. The sound of crickets chirping or water running can create a sense of serenity. Sound design doesn’t just tell the audience where they are, it also tells them what to feel.

Sound Can Move the Story Forward

A story is a journey that moves from point A to point Z. At each point along the way, something must move the story along. Sometimes a single sound can be the event which triggers a chain reaction. A sudden scream, a gunshot or the sound of the earth rumbling can create a sudden sense of panic. Conversely, the sudden cry of a newborn child or dead silence before a crowd erupts in cheers can convey a positive change in the story.

We all know that life can change quickly and sometimes it is a single sound or phrase that is the catalyst for that abrupt change. Understanding these moments that are common to us all is how a radio commercial tell a great story in seconds. Mastering the sound design tools is critical to designing a great radio commercial, particularly when there are no visual cues to tell the story.

Tone, Mood and Emotion

The first step in great sound design is determining what you want your audience to think, feel or know. Then, determine what sounds will help convey your message. Obviously, the sound of surf will quickly place your audience at the beach, but that doesn’t tell them much about that particular beach. It does not tell them what the mood or tone is in the scene. Is it in the middle of the day or late at night? Is it an isolated beach or a crowded beach full of noisy tourists?  Good sound design can tell an audience everything they need to know in just a few seconds. Music can further set the mood and the tone. Tense, dramatic music can set a foreboding tone, while light, cheerful, bubbly music can set a happy tone.

Great stories are full of unexpected surprises. Just because a radio commercial may only be 20, 30 or 60 seconds long doesn’t mean it can’t tell a great story. Not only does every second count in a radio commercial, but you have less tools at your disposal to make it a great one. Great sound designers thrive on the challenge of finding ways to tell more story in seconds.

Did learning about storytelling in radio commercials interest you? Ready to start a sound design program? The Institute of Production and Recording (IPR) offers a program in sound design for visual media that teaches students about Foley techniques.

The Sound Design for Visual Media program is an occupational degree program that immerses the student in the world and industry of sound design for visual media. Students in class learn key skills and concepts necessary to meet the demands of a large-scale audio/visual media project. These skills and concepts include advanced sound design, synchronization, sound effects creation, field and location audio recording, boom operation, ADR recording and editing, Foley recording and editing, the creation and recording of music for visual media programs, and the audible mixing of these elements together. At a higher level, students will also learn how to make the correct aesthetic decisions for the project they are working on, gain important organizational skills that include logging and archiving of media materials, and achieve the skills necessary to advertise and market the final product.

Contact us today to learn more about the Sound Design for Visual Media program and starting a rewarding career in commercial storytelling.