Auditory vs. Visual Storytelling

“Because it’s audio, you can do this magnificent thing that you can’t do on the page: you can move people emotionally.” -Malcolm Gladwell

Studies have shown that babies cry with accents. It’s true: a baby born in Germany has a German accent years before it will learn what German is, and how to speak the language. That’s because a fetus in the womb adopts vocal intonations from its mother.  In some sense, then, it can be said that we learn how to speak before we can speak.

It is because sound and the human voice are so fundamental to our nature that auditory media are able to affect us so deeply. Think about your favorite music, and how weird it is, on some level, that arrangements of certain frequencies of sound in the form of musical notes can make us feel so many different ways so strongly. Think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats, which revolutionized how a government leader could communicate with the citizenry by giving individuals all around the United States a very intimate sense that their leader was visiting them right in their living rooms. Think of someone you love, their voice, and how nice it is to hear on the phone when you’re sad, alone or away from home.


The last decade has seen such a proliferation in online visual media that it’s easy to forget that pure sound dominated mid-century Western culture, in both the informational and entertainment spheres.

-Comedy albums made household names of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Steve Martin,

-Radio became the dominant medium for not just for music and news, and

-Comedy and dramatic narrative shows that served as popular pre-television forms of at-home entertainment.


In only the last few years, audio entertainment has seen a resurgence in popular media.

-Audiobooks are threatening the market for print books,

-Magazines like The Atlantic now offer orally delivered articles, and

-Though only a decade old the podcasting industry is growing faster and faster, year by year.

Most of all, though, the spoken word is a medium of storytelling.  Throughout human history, stories have been shared from generation to generation, mostly when elder persons share tales of their lives with the young, both to preserve memories and teach lessons.  There is quite literally no older human art than that of spoken family storytelling.

This, fundamentally, is where the Family Sounds podcast finds its roots.  These days each generation experiences a whole paradigm shift in culture, lifestyle and overall experience, making the stories of the elderly that much more novel.  When someone like Louie Ort, whom we recently spoke with, tells the story of emigrating from Europe to the United States on a whim, before even turning a teenager, it affects those in his family who come after, and inspires even those of us who never got to meet him.  Of course, a story like Louie’s can only ever be told, because captured imagery would’ve been obscure in his time.  By preserving his memory in audio format, his legacy will remain so long as someone cares to keep it.

It may be counterintuitive, that a medium which offers less (audio) could be more effective in what it does than one that offers more (audio-visual). However, we all know that popular theory: once one of our senses goes down, the others become heightened. The scientific validity of that claim aside, it does seem the case that there are advantages to dedicating your energy and attention in one place, rather than have it diluted through all different forms of stimuli. Video will always be important for expressing information and ideas better seen than told. Perhaps the strength of sound, though, is that it lulls you in, giving you more by offering less.

-Nathaniel Nelson


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