The Power of Sound and Listening

A picture of a woman listening to music with earphones on mobile phone.
Filed under - Industry Insights,

Paul Sephton at Jabra shares podcast interview with international speaker on sound and communication, Julian Treasure.

Julian has amassed over a hundred million views on his five TED Talks, including how to speak so that people want to listen, which sits in the top 10 TED Talks of all time.

Julian Treasure is a top-rated international speaker on sound and communication skills, as well as the founder of audio branding company The Sound Agency.

Today, we’re discussing how people and organizations can listen better, how sound affects business productivity and wellbeing, and the secret of conscious listening and powerful speaking in business.

Paul Sephton: Where did things first kick off for you, and how do you think you got to the point you’re at today in being one of the leading experts in this space?

Julian Treasure: I had a career in marketing before this, starting in advertising. All the way along I’ve been a musician, so I was always listening to things in the way that musicians. I think musicians do listen in a slightly different way to non-musicians perhaps.

If you’re playing in a band or in an orchestra, you have to listen carefully, and you’re doing multi-track listening. You’re listening to every other instrument at the same time.

So, I was listening to the world like that all the way through this career. I developed this publishing company, which became very successful. I sold it and then I thought, “Listen, the world is not sounding good. Why is this?” And I wanted to do something about it. So, I formed a company called The Sound Agency, for which the basic question was: “Why is the world not sounding very nice?”

Well, it’s because we’re surrounded by noise a lot of the time. And it became clear to me that most of that sound is made by organizations unconsciously. They’re not meaning to make a noise. It’s just the exhaust gas of what’s going on in the world, really.

Sound that enhances wellbeing. Maybe it states a brand, maybe it doesn’t, but it certainly can enhance wellbeing and productivity.

So, the next question was: Does this matter? Has it got any effect? After lots of research and lots of reading, I developed my model of how sound affects human beings in four ways, which hasn’t changed. And that underpinned the whole development of The Sound Agency, really, which set about helping brands and organizations to make sound that was positive for them, intentional, designed.

We design with our eyes all the time, and it’s quite rare to see things which are designed with the ears. And today I’m delighted; five TED Talks, a hundred million plus views, and two books later and The Sound Agency’s now helping organizations around the world to make sound largely in physical spaces.

Sound that enhances wellbeing. Maybe it states a brand, maybe it doesn’t, but it certainly can enhance wellbeing and productivity.

Paul Sephton: So, perhaps before I zoom into the listening and speaking side of things and the four pillars you mentioned in your development, I want to address the organizational sound.

Where are the sounds coming from? How can they be better controlled? And how can we start to think about, as organizations perhaps, first being more aware of listening to them the same way that a musician learns to listen more to their surroundings?

Julian Treasure: I often have a conversation with marketing directors where I explain the four effects of sound, which we’ll talk about in a minute. And they go, “Oh my goodness.” They hadn’t thought about that. “We haven’t got a budget for it. We haven’t really thought about this, but maybe we’ll do some sound next year then.”

And I say, “There’s a problem. The problem is your organization is already making sound. Lots of it. It’s just not planned, not designed. And 9 times out of 10, given that it’s probably negative, it’s probably shooting you in the foot, undermining all the money you’re spending on visual branding.”

We experience the world in five senses. We also experience brands, products, and relationships in five senses. Not just one. So, it is a grave mistake to focus too much simply on how things look.

So, this ranges from the sound of your corporate reception. What does it sound like? How does the receptionist’s voice sound? How does the room sound? What do you hear when you walk in?

It’s every sound. The sound in your toilets, the sound in the corridors, the sound in the workspaces of your people, the sound in your showrooms, the shops, the sound, of course, of your marketing communication, your advertising, which generally has got sound associated with it, such as voiceovers, music, possibly a sonic logo. You think of

Intel, where I doubt many people could draw Intel’s logo if I ask them to, but most people would be able to go, “Oh yeah…” It’s a classic piece of audio marketing worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Intel and copyrighted and trademarked. So it’s all of that stuff. Absolutely.

If we focus now to the name above my head, Moodsonic is our trade name for the generative soundscapes we’ve designed to help people to be well, healthy, and enjoy their lives a lot more in places like open plan offices.

Over the past 10 years, the number one complaint in open plan offices has been noise. “I can’t concentrate. People are talking behind me. It’s too loud. Or of course it’s too quiet, and if I take a phone call, I’m really embarrassed because everybody’s listening to me, in which case I’m putting off everybody in that space, because they’re all hearing me.” We have no ear lids. We can’t shut things out.

How well we can work, how productive we can be in doing knowledge working, dealing with figures or dealing with words in our head. We need that inner voice.

Human conversation is the most distracting sound of all. We’re programmed to decode language. We can’t do anything about it. And we’ve got bandwidth for roughly 1.6 human conversations. There are very few people who can actually understand two people talking at the same time. And that’s one of the four ways in which sound really affects us cognitively.

How well we can work, how productive we can be in doing knowledge working, dealing with figures or dealing with words in our head. We need that inner voice. And if somebody is talking about their great night out behind me, my inner voice is being trashed.

You know that. Everybody knows that feeling. “Would you shut up? I’m trying to think here.” That’s so common.

Paul Sephton: You referenced Moodsonic and the many ways in which we can start to potentially think about noise in the office, how it affects our productivity, and how we can then potentially solve that.

You’ve also mentioned the cognitive side of things as one of the four pillars. What are some of the main impacts that you’ve seen in the open office affecting our business acceleration or pace and our productivity?

Julian Treasure: Well, let start with the way sound affects us. I’ve already mentioned one of them, which is cognitive. So the ability to think and to concentrate, which is massively degraded by noise around us. The most distracting sound is human conversation, ringing phones or alarm sounds like that, because that is something needs to be done.

“Will you answer that phone? It’s very disturbing.” Anything that’s inconsistent you can habituate to, like a hum or a buzz. I mean, it’s not good for you, but you will habituate to it.

You will eventually cease to hear it. That’s what happens with air conditioning systems. You don’t hear it through the day, but of course, when it goes off at 5:00 PM, everybody goes, “Oh, I didn’t even hear that.” And your shoulders have been going up around here because this noise is there all the time.

Somewhere in your brain there’s work happening. Your brain is going, “I’m not listening to that. I’m still not listening.” There’s a filter going on, which is fatiguing.

There’s not a vertebrate on this planet that doesn’t have ears. There are plenty that don’t have eyes, but hearing is our primary warning sense.

The other three ways we have are physiological. Sound affects our bodies all the time. If there’s a sudden noise, you get a fight/flight response. It’s absolutely genetic. I mean, it’s been that way all the way through the development of humanity and not just us.

There’s not a vertebrate on this planet that doesn’t have ears. There are plenty that don’t have eyes, but hearing is our primary warning sense because you can hear in a sphere. I can hear behind me.

I’m not very good at seeing behind me – I don’t know about you. So, if a twig snaps behind you in a forest, you will spin around. It’s a reflex. You’ll get a fight/flight response. Anything sudden or unexpected will cause you to do that.

You can go the other way as well. I always talk about gentle surf for example, which is a very nice sound if you have a problem sleeping. It’s very similar to the breathing cadence of a sleeping human being.

It’s also a sound that we associate with being relaxed, not a care in the world, on a beach. It’s a beautiful sound. So, you can calm yourself or you can energize or stress yourself with external sound. The second way is psychological. And that is really obvious when you think about music. We can use music to enhance a mood or to counteract a mood.

If you’re feeling down, you can put a happy song on, or if you’re feeling happy, you can put a happy song on and be happier. We’re very aware of the emotional load of music. It’s incredible. Nobody quite understands it. People have tried to decode it, but it’s very difficult to decode. It’s fundamental to being human; to be human is to be musical.

There’s not a tribe or a section of humanity that has ever been discovered that didn’t have music.

Music powerfully affects our emotions, and so do other sounds. We use birdsong a lot at The Sound Agency because birdsong makes most people feel secure, calm. We’ve dealt with cognitive, so the other of the four effects is behavioral, changes what we do fundamentally.

This is very important for business to understand. If you’re talking about retail, my favorite is a wonderful survey done by some academics some years ago in a supermarket. It depicts two ends of a gondola: one showing French wine, one showing German wine. They have identical visual displays, and all they did was to alternate the music.

Day one, a bit of French music, day two, a bit of German music and so on and so on for a long time. What happened was that on the French music days, French wine outsold German wine by five bottles to one, but on the German music days, German wine outsold French wine by two bottles to one.

If you’re running a brand or an organization, you need to ask yourself: “What sound are we making and how are we influencing people’s behavior?”

Now that’s a massive shift in purchasing behavior, and it was not conscious. This wasn’t people going in and going, “Oh, German music. Well, I better buy some German wine then.” It was completely unconscious. When they asked people, most people had not even noticed the music. So that’s the power of the sound around us. And if you’re running a brand or an organization, you need to ask yourself: “What sound are we making and how are we influencing people’s behavior?”

The same happens in offices, of course. Most people in offices can agree that noise is distracting. Of course, we can talk about the definition of noise, but fundamentally unwanted sound or unpleasant sound in offices, though very subjective, is distracting. If it’s a noisy office, people are less social, less helpful, and less kind to each other.

The research has clearly indicated that. They’ve done tests with people dropping papers on the floor. Less people get involved in helping each other in noisy situations.

Paul Sephton: So, since the psychological, the cognitive, and the physiological have been consciously crafted through soundscapes or music, how much or how far can we push the needle in potentially taking control of this to create new habits or alter human behavior? And how much of it is down to other factors, which are more out of our control?

There is absolutely nothing stopping us from designing with our ears as well as our eyes.

Julian Treasure: Oh, I think a huge amount of it. We can control what we can control. I’m a great believer in accepting what you can’t control, so if you’re in the middle of an earthquake or a thunderstorm or something, well, that’s where you are.

On the other hand, if you’re designing an office, you’re designing, and design means intentional. Design is all about thinking about the function, thinking about the requirements, thinking about supporting people in how they’re going to feel and work and be and learn or whatever it is they’re doing in the space.

So, design is all about intention, and so is sound. And there is absolutely nothing stopping us from designing with our ears as well as our eyes. The issue is that if you ask architects about their training, I’m pointing the finger at architects slightly because they do design almost all the spaces we live in and work in…

Do you know how much of our time we spend indoors? Take a guess.

Paul Sephton: On a daily or annual basis?

Julian Treasure: Annually on average in the Western world.

Paul Sephton: I’d put it at 20 to 22 hours out of every 24.

Julian Treasure: Yeah, that’s not far off. 93% of our time is spent indoors. We only spend 7% of our time outdoors, and of the other 93%, 6 is in the car and 87 is in buildings. So, it’s really important. How we design buildings has a massive influence on how we live our lives and what we get out of our lives. And there’s a great deal of unconsciousness.

Now, I was talking about architects. In the US they train for five years, roughly. Ask them how much time they spent on sound. It can be, if you’re very lucky, a couple of months.

Maybe they selected to do a course on acoustics, but in most cases out of five years you’ll get the answer that it’s a day or maybe a week. In five years. Well, it’s not surprising that if you ask an architect to show you their work, they’ll show you pictures or visualizations.

And of course, unfortunately, most of the textures that architects love these days are hard. Metal, stone, glass, wood. I mean, these all very reflective and they bounce sound back into the buildings.

So, over the years, I’ve done a lot of work with Armstrong that’s all about the acoustics of a building. It’s all about having surfaces that absorb and block sound so that we calm rooms down and we stop sound from jumping into the next space where we can be overheard.

Well, we’re just now starting to understand that we can do that without looking awful. I call it acousthetics. Now, there are some wonderful new products out there on the market from people like Armstrong, which allow us to have clouds floating in the ceilings or used wood with micro perforations and all sorts of wonderful things, so architects don’t have to be disparaging now.

It’s not a question of sacrificing aesthetics in order to get good acoustics. You can have both.

Paul Sephton: And I think in addition to how organizations start to think about their soundscapes, it’s also going to be really interesting because the way in which we’ve begun communicating has completely changed this year as well. And it comes back to the foundations of speaking and listening.

Which one do you think comes first? Is it how we speak which then impacts how receptive we are to listening? Or is it how we listen which is then the primary navigator in conversation? Is it speech or listening which we should really be focusing on and nurturing?

Julian Treasure: Well, yes, hearing comes first in developmental sequence, and of course if you can’t hear, it’s very difficult to learn how to speak. Your company, GN, very well knows this with its hearing divisions, which make excellent aids for people who have exactly those problems.

So, hearing is fundamental. I talk about the two in a circular relationship. I’m not so bothered really about which one comes first. They affect one another. That’s the important thing to understand. It’s circular. So, it’s not I speak, you listen, because the way you listen affects the way I speak, the way I speak affects the way you listen, the way you listen to affects the way I listen, the way you speak affects the way I speak.

It’s an organic relationship, round and round and round, all the time affecting one another back and forth. And that circle takes place in a context all the time. And as you rightly say, the context has changed dramatically in the last year.

The context very often would have been face-to-face meetings, face-to-face conversation in offices, serendipity, the water cooler conversation. That is why offices will need to continue into the future, because I don’t know about you, but my experience with virtual communication is mixed.

It can be enormously effective – we’re having a perfectly good conversation right now – but serendipity, not so much. If I have a really good idea and I’m thinking about it, you’re not going to wander out next to me so I can say, “Hey Paul, I’ve just been thinking. What do you think?” And you go, “That’s brilliant. I’ll talk to Fred about that because we could do something with that.”

No, that’s not going to happen. I’m not going to dial them up on Zoom and say that. It will fade away, probably. We’ll lose a lot of serendipity, but this is here to stay, definitely, and we’d better get better at it.

Paul Sephton: If we speak about mastering the art of speaking because we’re having to become a lot more effective at it in a virtual environment, what is your crash course, your starting tips for people who want to be better understood when they are forced to do so over a virtual connection?

Listening is fundamental. Nevertheless, speaking is more important to people.

Julian Treasure: Listening is fundamental. Nevertheless, speaking is more important to people. It’s interesting that my TED Talk on speaking, which is the last one I did, which is now I think the fifth most viewed of all time, has got at least five times as many views as my TED Talk on listening.

Now that says something. But let’s talk about the underpinning of excellent speaking. In the TED Talk, I talked about the four foundations of powerful speaking, which spell the word HAIL, so it’s easy to remember.

The H stands for “honesty” – that is, to be clear and be straight in what you say, not using jargon to obfuscate, not using big words where little words will do. We can all do better with that.

We can all be more simple to understand. It’s a question of getting the ball over the net. It’s not about looking good or impressing people. It’s about actually making sure that you’re received on the other side.

“Authenticity” is the A, and that is being yourself. Obviously with this kind of communication we can make a lot of decisions about how we present ourselves. There’s what we wear.

That’s what’s in the background. There’s how we look. There’s how we speak. And whilst with face-to-face communication, we’ve been a lot more sloppy with that over the years, I think we’ve gotten a lot lazier. You’ll often have somebody going, “No, I am listening to you.”

No, you’re not, you’re sending a text. That’s not the same thing at all. Whereas with this, if you’re speaking to me and I’m off over here, I mean, that’s clearly rude.

It’s taken as de rigueur that you actually look at the camera and you stay in eye contact, which is not natural in face-to-face communication. The actual dance of the eyes is that the speaker will not be looking at the listener all the time.

That’s intimidating. Well, that’s different on this medium. We are locked in eye contact and it’s considered to be slightly rude not to be. So, that’s authenticity. Being yourself.

You can present yourself any way you’d like, as long as it’s really you and you’re not trying to put on a front, because people can spot that if you’re acting and trying to present something that’s inauthentic.

The I is “integrity” – that is, to stick to your word. So if you say something, then you do it. Because if you’re known as somebody who makes empty promises, then your words just evaporate like puddles in the sun.

They have no power at all. People don’t listen. And then the L, perhaps surprisingly, that’s “love.” And by that, I don’t mean romantic love, I mean wishing people well. It’s a great mistake for anybody who speaks in public to think, “It’s all about me. It’s about me getting affirmation. I want the applause. I want the acclaim. I want affirmation from everybody.”

Well, it’s not about that at all, actually. It’s about what gift can you give to the people. How can you enhance them. If you wish people well, it really does improve the way that you’re received when you’re speaking.

Paul Sephton: What do you think some of the key and fundamental shifts we all need to make and more consciously tackle are in how we listen to other people?

Julian Treasure: Well, I mentioned one of the two habits, which I think are very destructive in modern communication and that one was looking good. I mean, we all like to look good, of course we do. But if it becomes the driving force in communication, it makes us pretty hard to be around. It’s all about impressing people, having an effect on people.

There’s an inauthenticity about that which makes it difficult. So there’s a lot of pretense. There’s things like competitive speaking, for example, which is a very difficult thing to be around.

If I’m going on holiday to Greece next year, and the other person goes, “Oh yeah, I’ve been to Greece five times.” That’s my little bit of joy squashed. The other big habit, which I think is even more destructive is being right. The American author and counselor Harville Hendrix said: “You can either be right or be in a relationship.” And I think there’s so much truth in that.

Being right has driven so much of the conflict that we’ve seen in politics in the last few years. It’s going on right now in America. Unfortunately, the internet and in particular social media are fanning the flames of this thing.

Once upon a time I could be keen on being right, and it didn’t have much of an effect on the world. But now, if I post it and it goes viral, there are thousands or even millions of people who are persuaded that my wacky view is correct and they joined me in being right about a thing, and then you have real problems because you have people who are doing things that are not logical, who are hating other people because they disagree with them.

Listening, of course, is the antidote to all of that, because if we’re going to live side-by-side in disagreement, civilized disagreement, then I need to listen to you.

Listening, of course, is the antidote to all of that, because if we’re going to live side-by-side in disagreement, civilized disagreement, then I need to listen to you. I need to make an effort to understand.

I might not agree with you, but I need to understand why it is you believe what you believe, how you got there, and to have some compassion for that. And I talk about the four Cs of effective listening. “Compassion” is one of those. It’s very important. “Curiosity” is another one which can help too.

“Why on Earth do you believe that?” I could get curious about it. And the other two are “consciousness,” because you’re doing a thing when you’re listening. It’s a skill. It’s not a capability. Hearing is a capability.

Listening is a skill. And the final C is “commitment,” because listening is work. It takes work and I have to put everything down. It’s such a gift to give to another human being, to give them 100% of your attention and really, really listen.

Paul Sephton: So many inbound things come to us each day. How do you filter through these? How do you choose when you’re giving someone 100% of your time? Because you only have so much bandwidth to give mentally to pure listening. How do you fence your audioscape?

Julian Treasure: I think it requires going back to basics and letting go of FOMO as a conscious process. Now we’re all infected with this thing. There is so much available.

Whereas once upon a time if you lived in a rural village pre motor cars, the 18th or 19th centuries, you’d know the people around you, but you had no idea what was going on in the world. And many people would say we were quite happy then. Do we need all this information?

Do we need 24 hour a day news with people standing outside buildings going, “Well nothing’s happened in the last three hours.” But that’s not news, is it? Nothing’s happened. But it is treated as news.

The art of happiness is to be here now and to be doing the one thing you are doing with total attention and doing it as well as you can.

So, this is kind of intense addiction to having to know everything up-to-the-minute. I don’t think that makes us particularly happier, and I think it’s up to us as individuals to reject that kind of intensity and to turn our backs on FOMO and say, “All right, I’m where I am, I’m who I am. I can only do one thing at a time and I’m going to do this.” And nevermind the opportunity cost, as economists would call it, of the two and a half million things I’m not doing because I’m doing this one thing.

The art of happiness is to be here now and to be doing the one thing you are doing with total attention and doing it as well as you can, whether it’s a conversation or carrying something out, and not be with this frantic, “What am I missing?” That is the road to madness.

One of the biggest myths, I think, in the modern world is that happiness is over there. But I do think it’s quite exciting that there’s an audio revolution coming, because I think speaking and listening will become more important in the future. And the good thing about speaking and listening as they happen in real time.

It’s very difficult to pay attention to two people speaking at the same time, as we’ve said. Well, that’s not true with the visuals. You could have three screens on and be flitting between them all the time.

That’s not very easy to do with a conversation. So, the fact that we’ve got smart speakers and intelligent agents coming very soon, which will be artificially intelligent, where we’ll be able to have meaningful conversations with technology, it slows everything down a little bit because it has to go at the pace of speaking and listening, which is a slower pace, perhaps, than the pace of scanning lots and lots of visual inputs.

I think sound is going to make a big comeback. It’s going to be our primary interface with technology, with the internet, with the worldwide web, with whatever it is we’re accessing with out houses, our “smart-everythings.”

And I think that’s probably a good thing. So I welcome that. And I think sound is about to make a big comeback. It’s going to be our primary interface with technology, with the internet, with the worldwide web, with whatever it is we’re accessing with our houses, our “smart-everythings,” we’ll be speaking to it and listening to it, which liberates our eyes and our fingers from this prison they’ve been in for the last 30 years where we’re just always hunched over a keyboard and a screen.

Well, that’s a good thing I think, and it’s going to be interesting how that plays out over the next five years.

Big for GN, of course, and Jabra in particular, because headphones will be important, wearable devices will be important. Implants, which your hearing division already makes, to a degree.

I mean, in-ear devices will eventually become in-skull devices. Bone conduction will be important. There’s a lot of exciting stuff to come, and I think all the big players are going to be well in there.

The Googles and Apples and Amazons of this world, they’re all investing heavily in this, in speech recognition and voice synthesis. So there’s a lot to look out for, a lot that’s going to happen, and sound will be at the heart of it.

Paul Sephton: That’s all we have time for today, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. We’re taught how to read and write, but not how to speak and listen, and I think today’s conversation really illuminated the value of these skills to anyone in the working world.

Thank you again to Julian for the time to share these insights. If you liked this episode, please don’t forget to like or share it. And if you want to stay up to date on our next episode, go ahead and subscribe. Until next time, cheers for now.

This blog post has been re-published by kind permission of Jabra – View the Original Article

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Published On: 6th Apr 2021 - Last modified: 15th Apr 2021
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