Laura Petrolino

Sensory Awareness and Storytelling

By: Laura Petrolino | August 31, 2015 | 

Sensory Awareness and StorytellingBy Laura Petrolino

According to researchers at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, sensory awareness is, “…the direct focus on some specific sensory aspect of the body or outer or inner environment.”

And, while it is a very common part of our inner experience, it oddly enough is not often recognized.


In our increasingly chaotic world, we start to tune out—and become numb—to the sensations we encounter. So while stimulus only increases, our sensory awareness seems to decrease.

Sensory Awareness and Storytelling

As communicators, this provides us a challenge and an opportunity.

Part of our job is to effectively tell stories—stories which resonate in a way that matters to our target audience. Stories which leave them with an understanding of who we are (or our client is), and motivate them to take some part.

When you read great fiction, what makes it great?

For me, a great book sweeps me away. I can feel, taste, smell, hear the characters and environment in the story. I’m there, I’m part of it—it feels real.

The story triggers my imagination and sensory awareness of the things being described.

The sensory details are what makes it real and a part of me.

Communication and Sensory Awareness

Our senses are directly linked to our emotions, and therefore the ability to engage them is very powerful. Engaging the senses can help a consumer connect to our brand, product, or mission in a powerful, yet indirect way.

It can also provide an added level of stickiness to our message because it stays with them through a different channel then the ordinary buzz of every day life.

But in order to share stories that contain an effective sensory component, we have to regain sensory awareness of the world around us.

And that, my friends, is your challenge for this week.

Igniting Your Sensory Awareness

One of the reasons I love to hike so much is it allows me to tap into a greater amount of sensory awareness than I’m able to in every day life.

When you are out in the middle of the woods, or on top of a mountain there is a certain type of quiet and stillness which allows you to more easily absorb everything around you.

I can hear my feet stepping on twigs and leaves, the wind blowing through the trees, the chatter of birds or other creatures, and that amazing sound of settling—which you can only hear deep in the woods.

I can smell various plants, evergreen, whatever is flowering, and the occasional stinky animal.

I can see…..well everything, often more than I can absorb.

I can feel my body moving through the trails, my core self-correcting as I hit uneven ground, my quads aching as I climb, the stones and sticks under my feet.

You get the picture.

My senses are tuned up and hiking provides this amazing sensory awareness that comes home with me.

Why is this important?

Because what we do as communications professionals requires both an attention to detail and an unique level of awareness which allows us to understand our target consumer and have foresight to lead strategy effectively.

When we allow our sensory awareness to become numb, we lose some of our ability to tap into the mindfulness (buzzword alert, but you know what I mean) needed to do just that.

The Spin Sucks Sensory Awareness Challenge

So here is your challenge.

Starting right now I want you to set an alarm to buzz once every two hours until the end of the day (say 8 or 9 p.m.). When the alarm buzzes, you must take 120 seconds (you can set a timer) to stop and become aware of everything around you.

Go through each of your senses and record what you observe—smell, sound, taste, touch, sight.

Do so with detail to help you really start to think from a more sensory aware position (because the senses are all about the details).

Write everything down. Reset your timer and repeat in two hours.

At the end of the day I want you to come back here and tell us what the most interesting things were you noticed that you had some how missed before.

What did you learn?

You’ll be pretty amazed at the little thing, the small cues which you miss in your every day life.

Just simply ignore.

Effective communications is about the details. Strengthening your sensory awareness muscle can only help you better understand—and in turn—be able to strategically incorporate those details into your communications campaigns.

Photo credit: @lkpetrolino during a recent hike

About Laura Petrolino

Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.

  • I’m in.

  • I do love that feeling of being out in nature, hearing the wind in the trees and the various creepy crawlies doing their thing. One time i was deep(ish) in the woods in the Upper Peninsula and it was absolutely silent. Not a bird, not a chipmunk, nothing. I remember the silence felt almost deafening, like I pressure in my ears. Very cool. I will try to try this today!

  • RobBiesenbach I am one 2-minute period into the experiment and have decided stillness is not easy.

  • danielschiller

    Alarms set! I’m prepared to be blown away with sensory delights!

  • LTreu

    Love this. Great idea, Laura!

  • danielschiller Yay!!! Let me know what you discover. Being in San Fran, I’m sure you have lots of interesting sound, sights, and smells around!

  • RobBiesenbach Oh, I’ve never been in silence like that, but I’ve heard other people who have that say exactly the same thing. It’s almost deafening to be in true silence. I remember reading a scientific study once that people can only be in true silence for a small amount of time without going insane…we need sound desperately to function….which is fascinating in and of itself. 

    I love nature because to me it’s silent enough to hear. It sharpens your senses so you can perceive things a few levels more intense then in everyday life. 

    I look forward to hearing how the experiment goes for you!

  • biggreenpen I knew I could count on you!

  • danielschiller

    LauraPetrolino Oh, that’s not the half of it 🙂

  • LauraPetrolino Challenge accepted! I ended up in Mexico! (At least my senses did)

  • danielschiller

    Well, lkpetrolino the experiment is complete! I feel a kinship with my natural environment.

  • biggreenpen LauraPetrolino YES! This is excellent

  • LauraPetrolino biggreenpen I love me some gold stars 😉

  • danielschiller lkpetrolino Do tell!

  • danielschiller

    LauraPetrolinoo lkpetrolino Seriously it was a helpful exercise. I happen to enjoy this environment, so the pause was enjoyable. I think the lesson for communications professionals is to s-t-o-p and consider how what you convey will resonate. That’s my two bits. What does everyone else say?

  • danielschiller LauraPetrolino lkpetrolino agree!

  • Loved your post Laura. I do this experiment every time I go to my parents home in the country side or en el pueblo (in Spanish). Last week I spent the whole week there, babysitting my dog Rex ( my parents left on vacation). It’s a vacation village, hidden between two hills and surrounded by a river and forest. You can hear every possible bird sing, every insect on Earth and even the sound of the leafs in the trees. It’s amazing. If you pay attention and spend enough time there, you can even guess the time after the position of the sun or the intensity of the daylight.
    It’s a great way to connect with nature and simply enjoy it.

  • Okay, I finally did this today. Four sensory sessions in four different places (I move around a lot through the day when I work). Inside or outside I cannot get away from the sound of air conditioning compressor/condensers, cicadas, and lawn mowers.
    My issue when I work is that I’m too easily distracted by all the sights and sounds around me. A squirrel scrambling past the window, students walking by, cardinals chirping, etc. So actually what this exercise helped me do today was, when I had a couple of phone calls, I made a determined effort to shut out all the things that distract me. It’s so easy to multitask during those things, so I decided to close my eyes and really focus on the conversation and being present in the moment.
    Somewhat related, I decided a few months ago that I would no longer walk around town looking at my phone screen. Partly to take in what’s going on around me and partly because SO many people get hit by cars and buses and bikes in this city!
    Finally, the exercise made me realized that my sense of smell is by far my most underdeveloped sense. Which is actually a blessing in many urban situations.

  • RobBiesenbach This is fascinating for so many reasons. I’m similar to you in that I have a tendency to be distracted by sensory triggers around me. When researching for this article I found there is a certain small percentage of the population who are like this. So, this exercise helps me do the same thing. I focus in on the sound of someone’s voice or their facial expressions, and that helps (plus it aids my understanding of them and what they are saying, feeling, thinking). 

    On another note, my sense of smell is totally OVER developed and it’s really problematic for me. I struggle with it constantly. 

    I really love how this exercise has affected everyone so differently. It’s absolutely fascinating. Thanks for sharing this Rob!

  • danielmatthews0

    This reminds me of mindfulness training I used to do with my clients when I was a Social Worker. Very helpful, in that it helps one stop focusing on a perceived problem or set of problems. Later, when analyzing a problem with a more detached, objective mind, an answer is more likely to become clear.