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Hearing is one the first senses developed in the womb, and the last to switch off. Our earliest experiences with stories are in their oral form, which means our brains are wired for audio narratives. Long form audio specifically taps into this primal sense, eliciting emotional responses, anchoring memories, and driving behaviour change. Despite what we may commonly think, audio can elicit greater emotional engagement than stories told through visual mediums.
At the heart of any compelling audio show is the goal to create ‘impact - a memorable experience that will lead to a desired action by the listener. From something as simple as telling a friend a fact they learned in the pub, to becoming a loyal fan or even engaging with a brand in more tangible ways, an audio experience is only as valuable as the lasting impact it has on its listener.
Luckily, our brains are wired to receive and store new information through stories, not facts. Actually, our survival has, until recently, been based on our ability to adapt to the unknown. Through curiosity and storytelling we have evolved to teach each other about aspects of the world we have not experienced ourselves. Because of this, when information is structured as stories, it activates greater neural activity which influences attention, mental effort, emotional response and memory.
Memories give us capability to learn and adapt, as well as build relationships. Podcasts have been shown to provide listening environments that lend themselves to stronger memories, both in the short and long term memory. This means brands can stay top of mind more easily through podcasting. An example of this can be seen below. The graph depicts the memory encoding to Martin Luther King's most famous speech when consumed aurally only, or through a video. It shows how strongly the brain is storing the narrative into memory, so it can be recalled later. Despite a commonly-held belief that audio-visual formats are more impactful, you can clearly see that audio alone elicits the strongest response.
Hearing, is the fastest of all our senses, and sound reaches the brain within 0.05 of a second. From there, it hits our emotional (limbic) center, impacting how we feel, act and behave. Sound and music within podcasting are extremely important in creating an emotional connection which is fundamental to lasting impact.
But what do we mean by emotion? Well, scientifically, emotion starts as physiological changes within the body in response to internal thoughts or external stimuli, such as a story. For example, in a moment of suspense, our heart might race as we feel fear for the characters. A moment of surprise may make us laugh out loud. A well told story will physically move us. These emotional responses are crucial, because science shows they are key to decision making, and guide our actions, steering us towards or away from different possible outcomes.
The emotional responses from stories are also driven by chemical reactions. The patterns of a well crafted story follow a set pattern of ‘crisis’ and then ‘resolution’. This resolution can induce the release of the chemical dopamine in the brain - the ‘feel good’ hormone which gives us a sense of pleasure. It influences behaviour and drives motivation to act. Stories can also elicit the release of oxytocin, the chemical that creates a feeling of trust. This comes from a sense of bonding and connection with either a presenter, narrator or even other listeners.
Oxytocin also drives one key emotion for action taking - empathy, which has both a neural and chemical basis. We can have empathy for other people, society or even nature itself. Empathy elicited by narrative has been proven to drive social action and positive behaviour such as donations, caring for the planet or other species, making changes to purchasing behaviour, and rising up as groups to make lasting change. In fact, studies have specifically shown how fact-based narratives about the environment result in greater pro-social behaviour in listeners than purely presented facts. Studies have shown participants who received oxytocin donated to 57% more causes, donated 56% more money and reported 17% greater concern for those in the ads.
Alongside oxytocin, emotional engagement can also elicit other neurochemicals, such as cortisol and dopamine. These can drive motivation and action. Dramatic arcs in stories help maximise this dopamine release and transport us into other worlds to enhance empathy with the story as well as feeling connected to its characters and associated community groups. Cortisol helps to focus our attention on the story itself, increasing engagement. This transportation into a story has been called a “neuro ballet”, where the listener physically responds to the story chemically, in a way that changes their future behaviour.
Recent research has revealed that listening to audio stories engages even greater cognitive and emotional processing than watching videos of the same narrative. Audio is shown to provoke a larger increase in physical measures of emotion, including heart rate and sweat response, compared to people watching visual media. A recent study found that when compared to videos with the same narratives, audio content created a more emotional response. Interestingly, when asked, participants believed the video-based content to be more engaging. However, the objective measures of engagement showed differently. This neuroscience study clearly contradicts our cultural and misheld perception that visual narratives must be more engaging. The graph below shows the participants' response.
We too easily think of our world as being visually dominant. It drives a belief that visual mediums are better and that, in the age of attention short form media is more desirable. Evidence shows us this is far from the truth. Our brains are wired to seek and learn from stories told in audio, and in a form long enough to let the structure of the story truly engage us. Long form audio formats can take the listener on a powerful, emotional journey that affects our brain and body, laying down stronger memories and moving us to action.
To learn more about the research we've conducted with Kinda Studios, listen to the latest episodes of Fresh Ears: https://freshears.lnk.to/codedforpodcastseo