2011-03-22_2327So quiet you could hear a…

It’s so loud in here I can’t even hear…

Do those sentence even make sense? If it’s really, really quiet, shouldn’t there be an absence of noise? Why would you point out how quiet it is by raising the spectre of sound in the mind of the reader? And why would you indicate loudness by talking about what you can’t hear?

Surprisingly, this isn’t just my lame attempt at a Steven Wright style joke; there are legitimate answers to these questions, and the answers reveal something shockingly important for copywriters.

The answer? You can’t convey extreme absence or total immersion very well through a direct approach. You have to hint at it through implication or comparison. Or you have to convey the subjective experience of it. Or use both techniques.

Hearing a pin drop implies that there are no sounds louder than that present. In other words, your mind, once seeded with that single, delicate sound, surrounds the rest with a silence more blanketing and complete than any you could have described directly.

And no, this isn’t just because “hear a pin drop” is a colloqualism or cliche, this technique works even when dealing with the actual experience of sound, as described by the great movie sound effects editor Walter Murch:

Murch flips on his computer, clicks the mouse a few times and instantly pulls up a scene from Jarhead. Swofford’s character, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is in combat for the first time and there’s an artillery barrage. Everyone else ducks for cover, but he stands up. And the camera moves closer to him. Then, in the distance, there’s a muffled explosion followed by dead silence.

This fleeting silence is a golden moment for an editor — a chance to put the audience right there on the battlefield. Jarhead’s director, Sam Mendes, originally wanted that silence to stretch for several seconds. But Murch came up with a better idea.

Pieces of dust and sand from the explosion hit the actor’s face in slow motion. Then you hear the sound of the particles hitting his face. “My combat action has commenced,” the character says.

This fleeting silence is a golden moment for an editor — a chance to put the audience right there on the battlefield. Jarhead’s director, Sam Mendes, originally wanted that silence to stretch for several seconds. But Murch came up with a better idea.
Pieces of dust and sand from the explosion hit the actor’s face in slow motion. Then you hear the sound of the particles hitting his face. “My combat action has commenced,” the character saOne of the rules of the road is that if you want to create the sense of silence, it frequently has more pungency if you include the tiniest of sounds.”

Did you catch that?  The silence is lengthened and intensified by giving you both a small noise and an inner subjective experience of it. Murch even describes this as a rule of the road:

One of the rules of the road is that if you want to create the sense of silence, it frequently has more pungency if you include the tiniest of sounds

Similarly, describing the cacophony directly doesn’t get to the experience of it as well as describing the subjective mental disordering and disorientation that such ear-piercing noise causes; the internal mental confusion of ‘I can’t hear myself think‘ implies an external sonic chaos that your readers’ minds will recreate, thereby putting them “right there on the battlefield.”

So what are the advertising applications of all this?

In my last post I plugged the technique of discovering and using quality cues in your advertising. And that raises the obvious question: how can you find those cues?

One answer: find the pin drops.

What unique turn of phrase implies more than it says. How can you describe an internal state that implies an external event and vice versa?

Do you think that Mike Diamond’s plumbers really smell good? Or do you think that smelling good implies cleanliness, professionalism, and stand-up qualities?  Smell is just one sense, perhaps the most primitively emotional, but we’re all the more able to fill in all the rest ourselves based on that, aren’t we?

What about finger licking good? It’s a cliche now, but imagine when it first came out!

OK, now you try – what are your pin drops? What small detail seeds our mind to rain down the greater whole?

P.S. If this seems hard, it should. It’s the kind of thing ad professionals get paid the big bucks to come up with.

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