The Microphone Is Your Friend

This post is an adaptation from an email I sent to a friend who is doing their first few conference talks. I was asked to share more widely so here it is

The microphone is your friend, honestly :) Even if you think you can be heard, there are some definite benefits to using a mic if it's available:

  • you actually can be heard
  • even people with less-than-excellent hearing can hear you
  • the video recording can hear you as well
  • you now have the option to employ some vocal variety: exclaiming, pausing, stage whisper ... it all adds interest and colour to what you are saying

There are a few different types of mic and each one has its own quirks!

Podium mic

This is pretty simple and non-invasive, but it's much harder to use than it looks. Throughout your talk, you need to make sure that your mouth is always a constant distance from the mic. I hate these personally and have to hang on to the podium to make myself stand still, almost bracing myself against the invisible mic-distance. If there's a podium mic and you're using another mic, always ask that the podium mic be turned off so you don't get unexpected extra mic-effects when you walk too close. I have no idea why venues leave the podium mic on but they do!

Handheld mic

These are my idea of a nightmare because I wave my hands around and again you have to concentrate on it the whole time. Holding this mic correctly is tricky, it should be in front of your chin, rather than in front of your mouth, and held vertically. You need to keep listening and adjusting, and I would always nominate a responsible person in the front row to mime when you need to get it back closer to your mouth again (you will need to, trust me). These mics are ideal for when you either need to pass it around or you're only making short interruptions with it. For a whole talk, it's tiring and I always get in a mess because I've got the mic in one hand and the clicker in the other ... I'm gripping them both and I can't pick up my water bottle ....

Common advice for clip-on/lapel or headset mics

  • choose clothing with a decent waistband or pocket, trust me you cannot hang a mic pack safely from your tights/pantyhose. Dresses are out unless they have fabulous pockets or a belt
  • look at the thing before you start and find out where the mute button is (if you can't see it, flip open a bit of cover on the front, it's often in there). Practice pressing it, unmuting it again, and work out if it lights up a different colour when muted
  • keep it muted while putting it on or taking it off again after the talk
  • thread the mic wire inside your clothing. And yes, this gets funny looks. The alternative is to suddenly grab it by accident when gesticulating mid talk and unclip it, you choose! Where the wire plugs into the box bit, you can usually unscrew and unplug which helps. Hold the mic end and drop the plug end down the *back* of your shirt, thread mic over your shoulder and clip on your front. Reattach wire to box and put box in back pocket.
  • feel free to mute while you're waiting to go on, while drinking water or coughing during your talk
    definitely mute as soon as you've stopped addressing the whole room and before you remove it or answer any questions from the swarm that have just appeared at the podium
    once it's on, forget about it. It will just do it's thing all through your talk. This is why I really like them, they help me just do what I'm doing.

Clip-on/lapel mic

Easily the most common type of mic and one that causes me the most sleepless nights because they're entirely incompatible with any outfit I feel comfortable in!

  • choose a top that doesn't stretch or drape/move at all OR you need to tape it to you so it doesn't move (and don't even go there if you might need to lean over a laptop on a table to demo, trust me on this one). Ladies in particular, PAY ATTENTION to necklines. A t-shirt neckline is too high for a mic (and most other respectable ladies necklines are too low especially if you are tall) shirts work well since there's something to clip to at any height.
  • always remove your lanyard first, it will only rub on the mic and rarely improves your outfit. Try to put it somewhere you won't lose it in the excitement of the moment.

Headset mic

Apart from making you feel like Britney Spears, these offer the best sound quality and therefore the most vocal freedom. The mic bit should be in front of your mouth and maybe down a bit - usually these mics only come in venues with staff on stage so usually you'll get some help setting up. Try to keep breathing, people really can't hear you doing so. I have issues in believing I can drink water without sounding like a drain so I sometimes struggle with these but see earlier comments about using the mute button!

These sometimes go around the back of your neck, which are secure but can feel tight and usually get hopelessly tangled in long hair (try to avoid removing it until you have less audience!). Others hang on one ear, which are sort of easier but I find them difficult to use as I have really small ears (and I'm not sure I needed to know that about myself) so they can be precarious but I haven't had one fall off yet...

Dear organisers: I love these. I can wear something that makes me feel like myself. Bonus points if you can let me know in advance so I can focus on my talk preparation rather than panicking about outfits!

Troubleshooting

  • feedback/ringing/echo. Instantly put your hand over the mic and return to the podium. Usually this is where you've walked too far forward towards your audience and your mic is picking up what's coming out of the speakers. Try to work out what you're doing wrong and stop it, or just stand still somewhere that doesn't make it happen.
  • POP and then silence. Dead batteries. Fastest solution is to grab a handheld mic intended for audience questions :) If a new mic comes, try plugging your already-attached wire into the new box rather than unthreading and rethreading.
  • unexpected "help" from the A/V people. It's mostly the big stages that have people that think they need to clip the mic to you and in those situations these people are your "team" so I usually don't argue with them before I go on stage!! If you're not comfortable being touched, say so.

Final Advice

In all cases place mobile phone as far away as possible. The only things that can stay on your person are your USB stick with presentation backup, a clean tissue and your business cards. Now kill the bluetooth on your phone so your smartwatch won't alert you to anything during your talk or repeatedly tell you you're out of range!

I'd definitely recommend making sure you have some time to play with the setup beforehand in any venue but especially including the sound if you're not familiar with using a mic when you speak. Hearing yourself is strange but it really does help more people to hear you more clearly. Ask the organisers if there's a good time to try the setup and take another speaker or trusted friend with you for moral support and second opinions.

If there's anything you want to add, or ask, then please use the comments. I'd be very happy to add to my library of tips and tricks.

5 thoughts on “The Microphone Is Your Friend

  1. For handheld mics, a simple trick is to actually place it on the tip of your chin. That way, it's always at the same distance from your mouth even when you turn your head. Humans with facial hair may want to stick their thumb between the mic and their chin to avoid rustling sounds.

  2. Perfect advice.

    This hit pretty close having recently received feedback from a conference on my not using a mic for announcements. You hit the nail on the head in the opening bullets. Even if your voice can fill an auditorium, use the mic. The hearing-loops in most venues will enable those using hearing-aids to hear what you're saying. Even for the shortest of messages, I'll always be using a mic in the future.

    Thanks Lorna.

  3. Great advice here Lorna, especially thinking about where to hang the lapel transmitter unit. Also tuck in any neck worn Jewellery to avoid noises in the mic Love the tip to trace the cable inside your clothing - saves from getting caught, but just looks pro. T-Shirts are sub optimal for all clip on lapels.

    In my experience running sound, do not be afraid to ask questions, especially if you feel unsure you're "doing it right". It's ok to refuse assistance when putting a mic on - personal space is your right. Ask for a quick run down of the transmitter pack, if there are AV types there - where the mute is etc. If you use the mute button sometimes you can forget to turn it off when you go on stage, so if you see some arm movements from the crew, check your mute switch. No need to panic... Keep breathing.

    Also if you need to "check" the mic, I advise not to tap it. Just say "check, can you all hear me?"

    If you're wearing a headset mic and conscious of hearing your breathing Darth Vader styles, just ask to position the boom just above you top lip, or move it back over the your check. The key thing to remember is the mic can change it's position. The tendency is for you to change how you present, which can add more stress in and already stressful moment.

    Most of the time it's strange because you're not use to hear your voice over a PA system. This will fade over time, as you get use to it and your confidence grows.

    If there is a mic on offer, always take it. Thanks Lorna great tips on a much over looked subject.

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