The Importance of Being Heard

If you can’t be heard, you won’t be listened to. You are not a rock star, so it’s understandable that you might not know how to use a mic. However your primary goal is to communicate and this is a skill you must have.

Consider that you may be speaking in a noisy area or speaking to senior citizens where voice clarity and volume are essential. Consider a debate where one candidate can be heard loudly and clearly, while others sound weak and unintelligible. If you learn to use a microphone properly you will be heard and you will be listened to!

How to Use a Microphone

Nothing will improve your microphone skill more than actually using one! I highly recommend you buy a good mic that brings out the best in your voice, as well as a little practice amp so you can practice at home. You can make all your mistakes in the privacy of your own home. Senator Al Franken travels with his own mic so he knows it will not only pick up his sonorus voice, but he will also be heard in any situation.

A salesperson at a local professional sound and music dealer can help you choose a mic that picks up and shapes your voice to sound as ood as it can. Audition the mics by speaking normally. (Don’t be embarrassed -it’s like karaoke without the booze!) Don’t scrimp; $50, but no more than $150 should do the trick. Your voice will sound as good as it can and you’ll have the mic for years. A little practice amp can be had for $50-75. If you don’t buy a setup, then at least borrow a mic and amp so you can practice.

Bring your mic to speaking engagements and request that they let you use it.

Understanding Microphones

Imagine the mic has a balloon attached to it as in the picture below. The balloon is something called a “pickup pattern”.  I like this picture because it lets you visualize where in space you should speak -namely inside the balloon! The diagram shows the very common “cardioid” pattern whiuch is sensitive in front, but not so much in the back (this helps to reduce feedback from nearby speakers).


Addressing the Mic

Now imagine that the microphone is an ice cream cone. Hold it no farther than six inches away and hold it a little below your mouth or off to the side so people can see your face and, importantly, so you don’t breath on it. Heavy breathing is, perhaps, not appropriate in a political speech and people will focus on your breathing and not your words.

Adjust your amplifier so you can hear yourself. If you hear feedback, put the amp farther away from you. Speak in a normal, comfortable voice. Try moving the mic around. Can you hear how your voice virtually disappears when the mic gets farther than eight inches from your mouth (i.e., outside the balloon)? Now get right up against it; can you hear how full and boomy it sounds?  If you turn your head as you speak, remember to turn the mic along with it!

Be aware of how you are holding the mic and check yourself while practicing. If you tend to hold the mic pointed out at your audience like a pointer or at your side like a suitcase you’ll need to practice. Do not wave it around like a sword either -you are NOT a Jedi Knight (sorry).

Plosive and Sibilant Sounds

Plosive sounds often come from words beginning with “P” or “B”. The rush of air causes a popping or booming sound that you may not hear, but your audience will. Foam is often put on the mic to mitigate this, but it may not be enough. Words with “S” or “T” are “sibilant” and make hissy and whistle-like noises; some sound equipment amplifies this and it can be very annoying -and distracting- to a listener. Practice making these sounds and try to minimize the problem by repositioning the mic slightly to one side and, if necessary, a little farther away.

Proximity Effect

You might wonder why some performers (especially solo singers and comedians) seem to be positively swallowing the mic. They are using the proximity effect. If you get really close to a mic, the bass reproduction goes way up and treble gets crispier (try this on the mic you just bought). Lotza bass + crispier treble = a “warm” tone. If your voice is thin or weak you can get closer to the mic to make your voice more rich. Here’s a link where you can hear the proximity effect .

At some venues, especially when you will be on TV, you will likely have a wireless “lavaliere” mic clipped to your lapel, in which case you just need to be sure it’s placed close enough to your mouth. The sound tech will help. Do not allow clothes or your hands to brush against the mic. Lavaliere mics are very small and connect to a little belt pack clipped under your clothes or behind you where it can’t be seen.

And remember, always treat the mic as if it’s “live”. If you walk away after an interview, your mic may still be on, so be careful what you say!

At the Gig

Get there early and bring a friend, preferably the same person every time and someone who will become trained to look for problems. Case the joint. Make the venue turn off the mariachi music playing over the ceiling speakers (a common problem in hotel ballrooms). See if you can turn off fans (you don’t notice them but the mic will). Close doors to hallways and otherwise minimize distracting sounds. Ask where you’ll be speaking. If you are the first one at a panel discussion see if you can choose a middle position!

Ask to meet the sound tech and request a sound check. Be nice to the sound tech; they can make you sound great -or terrible. Ask to see your mic (If you have your own mic, ask if you can use it). Adjust the mic stand. Move a desk mic closer, so you won’t have to lean forward. If you are given a wireless lavalier mic, be aware that the wire snakes up under your clothes; avoid embarrassment and YouTube videos by putting it on before everyone arrives. During the sound check be attentive and do what the tech asks. Speaking into the mic at your normal volume. You do not have to force sound into the mic.

Sit or stand in a comfortable position. If the mic is on a stand, it is perfectly fine to reach over and adjust the height of the stand and the way the mic points. Set it so you can comfortably speak into the balloon without having to lean in to the mic or bend over. If you are having problems kicking the stand or you feel yourself leaning forward, ask for a “boom” stand. A boom extends horizontally to get the mic closer to you and farther from the base leaving you room.

If you are at a podium with a little stick mic, make sure it is pointed at you and not above or below your head. If you are short, you may need a box to stand on; if you are tall, you may need to raise the mic or even the podium if that is possible. You’ll want to avoid touching the mic or its stand, or pounding on a podium with your fists to make a point. Podiums are notorious for making big booming sounds that you might not hear, but your audience will. Distracting sounds draw audience attention from your message.

You may not be able to hear yourself very well because the loud speakers will be out in front of the mics and pointed at the audience. Ask if stage monitors are available and make sure they are positioned so you can hear yourself and any interviewer or opponent. Ask to do a monitor check so you can be sure you can hear yourself. Understand that what you hear and what the audience hears will be completely different. This is why practicing your mic skills is so important.

Have your friend in the audience listen and flag you at sound check and during the speech so you’ll know if you are slacking in your mic skills. Thumbs up means “be louder”, thumbs down, softer. Two hands coming closer together means get closer to the mic (and vice versa). Have your helper speak to the tech if you are consistently too loud or soft.
If you remember nothing else remember these three things:

  • Remain calm and comfortable.
  • Speak normally, inside the balloon.
  • Minimize distracting sounds that draw audience attention from your message.
  • Microphones are always live!

Finally, the chances are that you may be the only speaker at the venue who knows how to use a mic. Remember -the candidate that can be heard gets listened to!