Can You Hear Me? Making the Most of Microphones

Picture yourself at a professional conference and the speaker walks up to the microphone and says: “Is this thing on?” or “Can you hear me okay?”

Maybe you’ve even heard yourself asking these same questions of your audience. If so, you’re not alone!

Professional and seasoned public speakers know that there is great value in using a microphone, that is, if you make the most of the microphone. Unfortunately, most speakers either fear using microphones or really don’t have a clue about the dos and don’ts of microphone usage.

This article will answer 4 critical questions about effective microphone usage.

1. Do I really need to use a microphone?

We’ve all been in a meeting or presentation where the speaker says:

“I don’t really need to use this microphone; everyone can hear me, right?” First of all, it’s not the job of the audience to figure out if you need amplification. The best way to do that is to visit the site where you’ll be speaking and check the acoustics of the room. 

A typical problem is a room with high ceilings and little sound absorption, which creates an echo effect making it harder to hear. While visiting a site in advance is always helpful, don’t forget to also find out what else is happening the day you’re scheduled to speak. The point being that if there’s an event in the adjoining room, you’ll want to be prepared to use a microphone to adjust for sounds penetrating the wall or partition. And who knows what external sounds may be competing with you, like construction or traffic!

Another point to consider is the size of your audience. A general rule of thumb is that for an audience size greater than 20, it’s advisable to have a microphone set up. That way, it’s there if you need it; you can always opt not to use it.

One final point is that using a microphone is an excellent way to preserve your own voice from overuse and ensure proper vocal hygiene.

2. What type of microphone should I use?

There are several choices of microphones including wireless, lavaliere, handheld and stationary. Depending on the speaker, there may be individual preferences; mine is the lavaliere. This is a small clip-on microphone that is best placed on a shirt collar or jacket lapel. It needs to be positioned so that it’s not rubbing against clothing or jewelry. It allows for freedom of movement and you don’t have to monitor how close it is to your mouth.

Part of using a lavaliere is that there is also a small power pack that must be worn so you’ll want to have a waistband onto which you can easily clip it. (I learned this the hard way when I wore a dress and realized I didn’t have a place to clip on the power pack; didn’t make that mistake again!) By the way, when using the lavaliere you’ll want to be sure the power switch is turned on but check that it’s turned off if you’re having a conversation not meant for others to hear. It’s also a good idea to have spare batteries on hand!

The other microphone choices will work well but you’ll want to make certain adjustments. For example, if you’re using a gooseneck that’s part of the lectern, it should be adjusted for distance before you start speaking and then leave it in place. Now let’s say you’re using a microphone on a stand, first remove the microphone. Again, adjust this for your height before you start speaking; then replace the microphone in the stand. With a hand-held, you have to get used to consistently keeping the microphone near your mouth while speaking, which is easy to forget. If you’re wondering what the correct distance is between you and the microphone, it’s 3-5 inches. Also, the goal is to speak just over or under the microphone rather than directly into it. This will help you avoid the annoying sound of what is referred to as popping Ps or Ts, or any sound that is considered a “plosive” with a lot of air behind it.

One other detail to factor in is whether you’re using a uni-directional or multi-directional microphone. The difference is that the first one will only pick up your voice from one direction. But occasionally we may turn our head to introduce someone to our side and in this case the multi-directional microphone is an excellent choice so that your voice is still picked up. If you’re unsure which type of microphone you have, try speaking from the side and you’ll know right away.

Simple, right?

3. How do I check that my microphone is working?

If you’re like most people, you’ve probably tapped on the microphone, blown into it a few times or said: “Hey, is this thing on?”

So now I’ll fill you in on a secret—those are the worst things you can do to test a microphone! Microphones are sensitive pieces of equipment so you don’t want to risk breaking them. The best test is a simple voice check where you speak several sentences into the microphone and have another person monitor if you can be heard from the sides and the back of the room. It’s also helpful to have a technical person on site in the event there is a problem when you’re giving your speech; you may also want a spare back-up microphone available just to play it safe.

4. What do I do if I get feedback?

Feedback is that incredibly annoying high pitched squealing sound that makes you want to go running out of a room. It is the result of interference and occurs when another microphone is on in the same room or when you are speaking under or in front of a sound system’s speakers. By the way, sometimes you don’t see speakers that are positioned in a ceiling. This is why it’s best to do a dry run so you can check these issues before you speak. If you do encounter feedback, simply adjust where you’re standing or turn off another microphone in the same room.

The answers to these 4 questions will ensure that you’re making the most of microphones.

By: Dale G. Klein, M.A., Corporate Communication & Speech Specialist,©2008 Profitable Speech, LLC®. All rights reserved.