Reading vs. Listening

Consider these responses to the question “What was your earliest childhood memory?”:

  • The smell of photography processing chemicals.
  • A Sesame Street episode.
  • Driving away from my grandmother.
  • Playing hockey in the kitchen with my dad.
  • Sliding down this Little Tikes™ slide in our living room with my sisters.
  • I remember my mom teaching me how to spell my name.
  • When I was potty training I pooped in a laundry basket full of clean clothes.
  • We were all at the dinner table and I was screwing around with my food, not eating. My mom was scolding me to behave. And my dad said to me – and I remember this – he says, “That’s alright, Margie. You’ll always be my girl.”

These answers are open for interpretation. Does the smell of photography chemicals trigger good memories or bad ones? Was pooping in the laundry basket as a little kid a source of embarrassment? Humor? Some context is needed to get a better idea of this. Still, hearing the actual words being spoken would give us the best clue. It’s the same reason why the remedy for a misunderstood email message is a telephone call or a face-to-face conversation. The voice carries a lot of information.

Here is a recording of the above phrases:

How is reading the text different from hearing the original speakers saying the words? What comes through in the audio that is missing in the text? Here are some ideas:

  • Gender
  • Accents
  • Emotion
  • Intent…

Controlling Pace & Indicating Importance

As an audio artist, I can also play with pace. I can slow things down. I might test your patience if I take it too far, but it is a choice that I can make. Likewise, I can speed things up. The writer can also set the pace with, for example, a clause, punctuation or even the number of syllables in a sentence. However the reader still controls how fast to read. By contrast, if we listen to a recording as a group, we’ll hear the same thing at the same speed.

In the comic book about how to tell a radio story, Out on the Wire by Jessica Abel, Ira Glass (or the cartoonified Ira?) explains how music can be used to let the listener know that a key point is about to be made. The tip works against what I would have thought. Here’s the idea. Imagine that there is a bed of music under some narration. Cutting the music highlights the next thing spoken. Here’s an example from This American Life:

It’s fair to point out that one can listen to podcasts at faster speeds than the creator might have intended. In this case, it would be hard to build suspense or create any other kind of mood. Think about your favorite song. At 2x it would be something else. But alas, if someone wants to fast forward through Jaws, Speilberg will have to live with it.