Using Sound as a Presentation Storytelling Tool

You may believe the content and visuals you place on a slide are the main vessels that transport your message. But, presenters should never forget the influence of sound in persuasion, inspiration, and education. Because every part of our brains are involved in the processing of sound – not typical of the other 4 senses – it significantly affects us in physiological, cognitive, psychological, and behavioral ways. When we hear a horn honk in the midst of rush hour traffic, our stress hormones escalate. When the office is throwing an impromptu lunch gathering complete with blaring music and shouting, busy bees cripple under the cacophony – likely abandoning their tasks. When we are in a forest and hear cicadas buzzing and birds chirping, we feel protected from threats. And when we hear nails screeching against a chalkboard, we reel away. Sound is extremely influential in our everyday lives – from the decisions we make to the behaviors we display. Here are 4 types of auditory elements, as well as tips on how to use them:

1. Your voice 

Research has proven that our voices can reveal a lot about our personalities, and even our health. Scientific American published an article in June 2016 that featured a company called Sonde Health, which aims to create software that can diagnose depression and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Probably most obviously, your voice is the primary mode of communication during a presentation. And you may not realize it, but many environmental factors affect different characteristics of your voice – altering the way others perceive you during a presentation situation. For example, the Columbia School of Business issued a study recently that discovered that people will expand loudness flexibility and pitch in conjunction with adopting a monotone voice when they gain power.

Presentation Tip:

According to Adam Galinsky, a Columbia professor, power transforms individuals by reducing cortisol, triggering the action-driven brain region, and enhancing confidence. If you are a presenter who struggles to command the room, take Galinsky’s suggestion and recall a moment where you felt the most powerful to project a powerful persona. A team of psychologists at the University of Illinois found that no matter what voice pitch you typically have, if it gets deeper during an event like a presentation, you’ll position yourself to effectively persuade an audience. If you lower your voice pitch within a few seconds of beginning a conversation, you’ll have a better chance at communicating your authoritative status to others.

2. Music

According to Wei-Lun and Yen-Ting Chang’s work, The Effect of Nonmusical Sound for Corporate Branding and Consumer Behavior, establishing relevance and recognition for your brand can be as simple as crafting a brief, sound element in the form of musical or nonmusical sound. For example, the Intel few-note melody is easily recognizable to many. In his TEDGlobal 2009 speech, Julian Treasure discussed how music is so rapidly recognized and strongly associated. Repetition of music increases this phenomenon – further strengthening its value as a presentation storytelling tool. Just think about the Jaws theme song. It doesn’t take anybody long to recognize those intricate stringing of notes, which most people associate to fearful things. Jaws also demonstrates how effectively music impacts our emotions, as the manner with which the music in a movie is scored dictates the way we should feel during different scenes.

Presentation Tip:

Julian Treasure-Using Sound as a Presentation Storytelling Tool

When constructing your presentation, take Julian Treasure’s advice and start by determining the desired outcome of your talk. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How do you want your audience to feel at the end of your presentation?
  • What type of action(s) do you want your audience to take post-presentation?
  • What is the purpose of your talk? Are you trying to inspire, persuade, motivate, educate, or inform?

Asking yourself these questions will help you pinpoint the tone you want to set and the type of music you will want to utilize.

3. Background noise

A 2012 article from the Journal of Consumer Research titled, Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition, researchers discovered that ambient noise at about 70 decibels causes individuals to perform at a higher level during activities requiring creativity. The researchers found that it becomes harder to process background noise at this particular level – making it necessary to enhance analysis of the sounds and engage in abstract processing. Approaching your environment with an abstract frame of mind leads to the production of innovative ideas.

Presentation Tip:

Try using background noise to transport your audience to a different setting. Use it to fuel their imagination and spark creativity and innovation. Let’s say your presentation topic is about the influence of the Internet in developing countries. You could liven up the narrative by incorporating a sound bed with background noise of a Bangladesh city street. Freesound has a varied selection of sounds that are Creative Commons licensed, so you can easily find an appropriate sound and download it immediately.

4. Sound bites

This auditory storytelling method can manifest in a variety of ways. A presenter could employ sound bites as quotes, which they could weave in the presentation repeatedly to support listener’s remembrance and recall of the content.

Presentation Tip:

While using descriptive language and immense detail throughout your content will improve the audience’s ability to imagine a scenario or setting, providing an added component with sound creates an even richer experience. This would increase the chances of people remembering vital information from your presentation as well. Let’s pretend you are presenting about the rise of hunger among children in your county or state. Go to a local shelter and use your phone or other recording device (I personally like the Tascam DR-40) to capture background noise in the environment. Catch the sound of food plopping onto trays; shoes gliding over cafeteria floors; and kitchen workers hurriedly mumbling the order of tasks. Or maybe try to interview a child and/or their parent(s) about their situation. Just hearing the voice of others can not only increase audience empathy, but it also enhances their imagination – giving them the freedom to recreate the moment you recorded in their own minds. This practice also increases the likelihood that your audience will remember and recall your presentation message days, months, or possibly years later.


Branch out in your next presentation by using some of the auditory elements described above. Let sound – from music and background noise to your voice and the voice of others – drive the narrative forward. If you plan to distribute the presentation content online through your website or social media, consider using Soundslides as the primary presentation platform or as a complement to another format. For more information about communicating with sound and grooming your voice for a more effective message delivery, check out the resources below:

The Impact of the Silent Presenter

“Noise” Apps Replicate Background Sounds, Increase Productivity Some Claim

How to Communicate with Creatives

How to Control Vocal Fry in Your Presentations

Find Your Authentic Voice

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