Sonic Success: How Sound Can Enhance Your Meeting

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The human ear is an amazing organ. Equipped with more than 25,000 minuscule hairs that translate tiny vibrations into noise, music, and conversation, it can single-handedly turn a meeting into a message. And yet -- speakers and speeches notwithstanding -- very few meeting planners actually give thought to what attendees hear at their events. That's a mistake, according to Kevin Perlmutter, executive vice president and chief of innovation at Man Made Music, a strategic music and sound studio that specializes in "sonic branding." Meeting professionals can increase the return on their meeting investment, he suggests, by paying as much attention to an event's soundtrack as they do to its agenda. During a recent conversation with Successful Meetings, he laid out the strategic benefits of auditory inspiration and gave new importance to the phrase "lend me your ears."

First of all, why is sound so important? In a world that's obsessed with visual media -- YouTube, Instagram, Netflix -- what's the case for auditory stimulation?
Well, one of our philosophies here at Man Made is that it's not about the sound; it's about the experience. People are experiencing all kinds of things, and sound is just one component. Yet, we fully recognize that sound has tremendous power -- almost an invisible power -- to affect people in a certain way and change their mood. When we think about how to score an experience -- we talk about scoring experiences like you would score a movie -- we think about what is the strategic intent of what we're trying to accomplish. Are we trying to help people feel more energetic? Are we trying to help people feel more productive? I don't know about you, but I personally listen to music every single day, often as I'm starting my day. I use music to take me to the mood that I want to be in. If I need to calm myself down, I might listen to some mellower music that's going to bring my nerves down. If I want to really pump myself into a productive state that requires high energy, I'm going to listen to a different piece of music. It's human nature to use music to accentuate the mood that we want to be in.

And on the reverse side of that: When brands or meeting planners allow music and sound to enter a space that isn't well thought out, they're actually causing people to have instinctive reactions that might not be intended. For instance, let's say you're in a meeting room all day and there's a buzzing air conditioner; that constant buzzing in the background -- which we call "sonic trash" -- causes an instinctive reaction in people that they might not even recognize is occurring. It's causing a little bit of emotional distress at the subconscious level. Similarly, let's say you walk into a meeting room and you've got 10 minutes of milling about before the meeting starts. If there's dead silence except for the chatter of a few conversations, your mind's going to wander and you might begin to feel some anxiety. That's a different experience than if there's the perfect song playing in the background to make you feel inspired.

So, we advise our clients to think strategically about the experience they want to create. How do you want people to feel when they walk into the meeting? How do you want people to feel during breaks? How do you want people to feel when they've come back from lunch and they're a little bit full and tired? There are key moments in every meeting when the meeting planner wants to jumpstart people into a certain mood, and music and sound can have that effect.

Based on their own experiences, most people instinctively understand the power of sound. But is there science behind it, too?
There's definitely science behind it. There are many studies that have been done that show how music can create greater levels of productivity. There are studies that have been done that show how music can cause or reduce stress. And there are studies that have been done that show how sound correlates with emotion. In less than the blink of an eye, you're processing music and sounds at a subconscious level, and that instinctive reaction tells you how to feel before it even becomes a conscious reaction.

Can you share an example that illustrates how an event can strategically leverage music and sound?

We have a client that does consulting for senior executives. They'll bring executives into a room for two or three days to solve C-level corporate challenges, and they've realized that music and sound can serve a number of purposes for them. First of all, they've recognized that they can set the right tone and vibe for the meeting if they take control of the sonic environment throughout the space. They've also recognized the benefits of having a proprietary set of music and sound that can signify their brand: Memory triggers built into the music and sound can help people remember the experience of being in that space and having a productive two- or three-day session with their team. Finally, they've recognized that not all of their sound needs to be custom; there are lots of sounds in the world that can help a meeting along, from curated music compiled into a Spotify playlist to individual sounds that we call "movement chimes."

Here's how it works: You walk into the meeting room and the company's proprietary branded music is playing. So, all of a sudden you're hearing music you've never heard before that's perfectly scored to create a level of intrigue, energy, and excitement, as opposed to feelings of reservation or hesitancy about whether or not this will be a productive experience. Throughout the meeting there might be opportunities for the facilitator to use movement chimes to help people move through the experience. For instance, we may use a fun sound like a hockey buzzer to indicate when it's time to come back from a coffee break. Or when somebody asks a question and the room goes silent, we may play some crickets to very quickly break the ice and make everybody laugh a little bit. Those movement chimes are little pieces of sound that the meeting facilitator has at his or her fingertips to help control the vibe in the room. At the same time, the meeting facilitator has Spotify playlists that we've curated for them: a productivity music playlist, for example, a high-energy playlist, or a nostalgia playlist.

So, our client ultimately has a whole collection of music and sound at their disposal. And thanks to an application we've created called MMX, or Man Made Experience, it's at their fingertips on the screen of an iPad to use at any time during the meeting with the tap of a finger.

To the uninitiated, "scoring" an event in the manner you've described might sound like an intimidating prospect. What's an easy way to get started?

Play some music before people walk in the room. If it's carefully selected for the type of event that's being hosted, attendees will walk in and feel a different way than if they had walked into a silent room. Also think about the music that you play during coffee breaks, and when it's time for people to come back from coffee breaks. There are times in meetings when there is a lull in energy. See if you can counteract that lull in energy with some upbeat music that will generate excitement. Those are two very easy things that people can do.

A/V can sometimes be the bane of meeting planners' existence. Does this require a large A/V investment?

In terms of technological obstacles: There's a missed opportunity to not bring some music and sound into the room at times when it could most certainly help people achieve the desired energy or productivity level. So there's a cost for not doing it as much as there's a complexity for bringing it into the experience. That's the first thing.

Second, many meeting planners are working in venues that have technology people already in the room managing the A/V. If that's the case, those meeting professionals will have no problem whatsoever plugging the music source into an amplifier that is flowing through the room already. So that's not a complication; it's just an extra thing to plug in and somebody who knows when to hit play. In a smaller room, technology is actually working to our advantage. For $100, plus or minus, people can get a Bluetooth speaker that runs on a battery, and they can play sound through it directly from their computer or their mobile device. So, the barriers to entry are very low, and the upside is a worthwhile experiment for any meeting player to try at least once.

Any final thoughts?
I just want to reinforce that whether you recognize it or not, sound causes you to feel a certain way. It courses through our brains to the subconscious area, and it causes a reaction. If we as meeting planners or brand professionals think about sound just for a few minutes, we have the opportunity to change the way people feel about the meeting or the brand experience that they're a part of. And if the meeting planner's goal is to make people feel wonderful and walk out of a meeting feeling better than they felt when they walked in, then music and sound have the ability to do that for them.