During the first week of my first proper job at Capital Radio in 1997, something happened that caused a shiver down my spine, a feeling I can vividly remember to this day. I was played some audio I’d already heard countless times before, a clip of Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. What had changed was the context, the induction group I was part of was asked to read the phrase just before listening to it and asked what the difference was. It was so obvious, hearing the audio contains all the emotion. Something that we instinctively knew but had never consciously considered before then. A very simple but hugely effective way of demonstrating the power of sound and thus the power of radio. I mentioned this process in my first post, it’s not what you say, it’s the way you say it, a universal truth, but why?
To answer that we first have to ask why do we say anything, as a species why do we talk?
A clue to that might be heard on the scrublands of southern and East Africa. Vervet monkeys have three main predators, leopards, eagles and pythons. As a consequence they have evolved different, distinctive alarm calls for each that elicit different responses within a group.
On hearing the leopard call the vervet monkeys run up the closest, highest tree, on the eagle alarm call they look up and run for low cover and on the snake call they stand up high and look down into the grass. Research has shown that the same responses occur when just audio recordings of the calls are played back, discounting the possibility the calls are general warnings and the presence of the predator is eliciting the response. Vervet monkeys are clearly communicating with sounds that have distinctive meaning, the starting point for words and language.
It’s hardly surprising that the ultimate threat of death could be the source of a profound, evolutionary leap like this. However, the evolution of language itself has been considered the ‘hardest problem in science’ to solve, there isn’t a consensus as to why and how it happened. We believe it evolved rapidly in only the last 100,000 years and potentially had profound implications on the development of communal living, memory, the role of emotions in behaviour and the development of intelligence.
Our most primal instinct is for survival, through personal threat/response - fight or flight - and ensuring the continuation of our genes through procreation, which are also the sources of our deepest emotions. Our ability to communicate meaning through sound, and it’s association with these deep emotions, is perhaps why as language developed so did the areas of our brains associated with emotion and memory. After smell, sound is the closest sense linked to memory. Smell almost certainly has it roots in the process of bonding through grooming that is displayed in all the great ape family groups. However, our ability to simultaneously convey our feelings with actions allowed us to build trust through language as well and sound grew in importance. Trust is what humans had to develop to be able to co-ordinate and innovate for the good of wider communities as well as trade between communities. The association of sound and emotion also had a potentially profound effect on how we think. Can you imagine thinking without an inner voice? We can think about actions, visualising processes but language gives a whole new dimension for problem solving and the expression of concepts. This idea of the inner voice and thinking is explored in this fascinating RadioLab podcast.
One of my favourite quotes from Dr Robert Cialdini’s new book Pre-suasion is “Just as amino acids can be called the building blocks of life, associations can be called the building blocks of thought” and the association of sound with the expression of human emotion is at the core of the importance in the way we say things. Regardless of how and why language evolved, influencing other human beings is a fundamental tenet of all the languages we have ended up with and is now at the forefront of our interaction with artificial intelligence like this year’s must have technology gift.
Realistic, believable, trustworthy speech synthesis is a fascinating field at the moment and the work of Amazon and Google’s Deep Mind, are certainly leading the way.
While text to speech and speech synthesis have fascinating potential, particularly for application with A Million Ads, they have a long, long way to go to capture the simple beauty and emotion of this classic radio ad… It’s the way you say it or as Bob says, it’s good to talk…
Sam Crowther, Head of Creative Development