Chief Innovation Officer Sponge
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How audio content can make your training more engaging

Good storytelling is at the heart of effective training and audio is a key tool that trainers can use to make the experience more immersive for learners.

12th Sep 2019
young man listening to headphones whilst using iPad
iStock/Eva-Katalin

For years learning professionals have focused on delivering visual content to make their sessions more memorable for learners, but you could be missing a trick by ignoring the potential of audio.

In this article, I’ll provide eight recommendations for enhancing the learning experience through audio.

1. Use sound to boost engagement

Branding expert and best-selling author of Brand Sense, Martin Lindstrom, says, “as smell is connected to memory, so sound is connected to mood”.

Material.io, Google's standards for user interfaces (UI), tells us that clever sound design can be used to ‘express emotion or personality’.

It explains, ‘the majority of a digital UI is conveyed in a visual way’ but ‘sound can augment how this information is expressed and provide another way to connect with the user’.

If we accept that our sense of hearing is closely connected to our feelings, then training that neglects the auditory experience is likely to miss out on a vital element of engagement with learners: emotion.

2. Let audio lead

As is the case with UI, most digital learning relies on our sense of sight, using text and video to convey key ideas and concepts but often underutilising our sense of hearing.

Although audio is a common feature within training videos, it usually serves as an accompaniment to visuals rather than playing the leading role, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

I’d urge L&D professionals to acknowledge learners’ natural desire to attach meaning and feelings to sound and identify ways to allow audio to shine.

3. Immerse yourself in sound

There is growing appetite for immersive technologies – such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) - in training but, as above, these are still limited to largely visual experiences.

I believe sound can and should be better incorporated into the sensory mix to further enhance virtual worlds.

There are so many possibilities for enriching auditory experiences in learning, particularly when we harness the latest technological innovations.

For example, we’re seeing an increase in global businesses delivering virtual tours to induct or onboard employees, but the really innovative companies are those that incorporate sounds synonymous with the brand, culture or environment along with the voices of the founder and/or existing employees.

This enables new recruits to hear first-hand what it’s like to work for the company.

We’re also seeing sound used to enrich training simulations.

In one project, audio was used to play out conversations between employees and deliver news to help set the scene and promote immediacy.  

After the training, one employee commented, “it was a great experience to actually ‘feel’ what it’s like to work in another part of the business”.

4. …and then lose yourself again

An often-overlooked benefit of immersion, and audio in learning, is that it can also be used to cut out unnecessary sound – this is particularly useful in busy or noisy work environments, such as manufacturing, where it’s hard for employees to concentrate on learning.

In fact, ‘isolation’ was cited as a main advantage of VR over more traditional training methods by one UK business.

5. Turn up the volume on audio

There are so many possibilities for enriching auditory experiences in learning, particularly when we harness the latest technological innovations.

For example, ambisonic sound is audio that allows listeners to precisely locate the directional source in 360°.

When coupled with geolocation technology, it has the potential to transport leaners to an alternative reality within the setting of a real or virtual world.

By designing training that evokes the emotions we want employees to feel, we have the potential to enhance their connection with learning.

Bose Frames might just look like a cool pair of sunglasses but they’re an interesting piece of consumer tech that enables the wearer to hear audio based on geolocation and direction detection.

So, when the user walks around or focuses on something in an outdoor environment, the glasses are able to identify where they are and what they are looking at to trigger an associated sound or voice relevant to the physical environment or location.

Now, just imagine the potential of this technology in learning.

6. Open your ears to inspiration

Inspiration can come from unlikely sources - and it’s not all high tech!

We know from audio walking tours that the combination of people telling stories with sounds and voices from the past, while in the present, is a compelling experience. If sound can bring history to life, surely the same can be applied to workplace training?

When it comes to design theory, game designers know the value of sound in enhancing user experience and enjoyment.

Imagine a compliance game with sound that promotes anticipation as you explore, concentration as you practice tasks and celebration when you succeed.

By designing training that evokes the emotions we want employees to feel, we have the potential to enhance their connection with learning.

7. Think creatively about the practical applications of sound

As with any technology, it’s important that the solution addresses the specific training challenge. It’s not about tech for tech’s sake.

I believe there are certain roles or professions that could benefit from this type of training - e.g. security staff, crowd controllers or the police force - where the ability to recognise and read audio cues could help navigate potentially risky scenarios.

The tech already exists - we just need to adjust our thinking and inject some much-needed creatively into learning design that engages emotions.

Outside of industry sectors and specific job roles, audio could be applied to meet much wider training requirements.

I mentioned digital onboarding or induction, as well as compliance training, above. The possibilities are endless and are only limited by our creativity.

8. Sounds expensive? Consider audio on a budget and its future potential

For many L&D teams, the cost of purchasing wearables to deliver training at scale would be prohibitively expensive.

Just as the falling costs of headsets and 360° video equipment has helped make VR more affordable and accessible to learners, however, I foresee wearables that harness the power of sound, like the Bose Frames, becoming mainstream in the future.

In the meantime, don’t be put off by budget restrictions. Look in your pocket or bag and you’ll realise we all have access to a pretty smart piece of tech – our phones – enabling us to record and replay quality audio.

The tech already exists - we just need to adjust our thinking and inject some much-needed creatively into learning design that engages emotions.

Interested in this topic? Read Learning technology: why do we make it so hard to create e-learning content?

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