The technical aspect of public speaking: microphones

Posted by Joep Weijers on February 14, 2020

You may have a loud voice, but if you are addressing a group with more than twenty people, you will want some form of amplification. In this third and final installment of the technical aspects of public speaking, we will discuss how your audience can hear you properly using microphones.

You don’t want to shout to reach your audience. Shouting is hard to listen to; your audience has to focus to get your message. Shouting is physically challenging to keep up during your entire presentation. And lastly, shouting doesn’t scale to large audiences. A proper solution is a microphone hooked up to a Public Address system.

There are several types of microphones that you’ll encounter at conferences. We’ll go over the four most common types.

Handheld microphones

Man holding handheld microphone

If you want to walk around on stage, then a handheld microphone will suit you. The professional ones have ample range to cover the entire stage and even allow you to walk into the audience. It is very easy to pass on, so will also solve your problems when you find yourself with more presenters than microphones.

But there are some drawbacks. For the best audio quality you have to keep the microphone at the correct distance from your mouth. Not too close, but definitely not too far away. This makes them hard to use correctly and you really have to practice this. If you keep the microphone too far away, the volume has to go up to amplify your voice enough. Increasing the volume increases the chance of a feedback loop.

When a microphone starts amplifying the sound of the speakers, it will create a continuous, awful, sharp noise, the so-called audio feedback. End the loop as soon as possible by making sure the microphone doesn’t pick up the speakers anymore by moving behind the speakers, covering the microphone, or reducing the volume of the microphone. A feedback loop is a sign that you did not keep the microphone close enough to your mouth, so slowly move the microphone closer. This has to be done slowly, to let the PA technician adjust the volume accordingly.

Another drawback is that you have to hold the microphone. This restricts your body language a little, because you do not want to use that hand to gesture. If you are “dual wielding” a presenter remote, you can not use your hands anymore for gestures, only your arms. This results in pretty crude gestures, and hampers your body language.

Fixed microphones (e.g. on a lecture desk)

Man behind a lectern with a fixed microphone

A fixed microphone gives you the freedom to use your hands, but restricts your movement on stage. A fixed microphone provides quality sound, but you have to stand close enough to the microphone. Also, some people perceive standing behind a desk as a barrier between them and the audience. Only your upper body is visible, so you need to be more aware of your body language to convey your message.

Fixed microphones can catch sound from a short distance, but you don’t have to speak very closely into the microphone as with the handheld microphones. You do have to talk in the direction of the microphone. Also, watch out that you don’t hunch over the microphone. Adjust the height of the microphone itself, rather than your posture.

Presenter microphones

Presenting with a presenter microphone

The presenter microphone is the default choice on most venues. It gives the speaker full freedom to roam around and use both hands, while delivering superb audio quality. It hooks over your ears and the microphone should be positioned roughly next to your mouth, but not touching your face. Conferences usually have PA specialists that will help you wire up. Make their life easier by removing your glasses and keeping long hair out of the way. Also don’t get scared if they reach in your back pocket. They need to put the battery pack somewhere, preferably out of sight. The battery pack sometimes also has a hook for your belt. Or you can put it in the pockets of a jacket. You definitely don’t want to negate the advantage of freedom by having to hold the battery pack.

The downside of the presenter microphone is that it is very visible. Very in your face. The battery pack also connects with a wire to the microphone. This wire can be distracting. Try to keep the wire out of sight and out of the way by tucking it away under your shirt on your back.

Lapel microphones

Presenting with a lapel or lavalier microphone

The lapel microphone, also called lavalier microphone, is a small, inconspicuous microphone that clips onto the lapel of your jacket. These microphones are typically used on television. It provides the same freedom as a presenter microphone, but has two drawbacks. It is positioned further away from your mouth, so the sound quality is not as good as a presenter microphone. Secondly, its position makes it prone to accidentally hitting it. Don’t slam on your chest when wearing a lapel microphone! These reasons make me prefer a presenter microphone.

The PA technician

Big conferences or venues usually have an audio / video technician in each room, to ensure the sound levels are good, and the video and presentation are working. They also control the lighting on stage and in the room. This person is your friend, so be kind and cooperative. Arrive on time, so they can calmly wire you up, and have time for a little sound check. Good PA technicians will monitor you closely and mute the microphone when you need to cough or take a sip of water.

You can also discuss the lights with them. If you have an interactive session you might want to keep the lights on the audience on. Also check your slides with the lighting, maybe you need to tweak the contrast of your slides.

Don’t anger them by pressing buttons you are not supposed to push. Help them to help you have a great presentation!

This third part concludes the technical aspects of public speaking series. You learned about preparing your slides in part one, getting on stage in part two, and all about microphones in this part three. You are now ready to hit the stage to share your ideas, your knowledge and your passion!

About the author: Joep Weijers

Joep is a Developer Experience Engineer at TOPdesk with a keen interest in delivering quality software continuously. He loves playing around with Jenkins Pipelines, GitLab CI, Selenium, Docker, Kubernetes and keeps in touch with his inner developer by educating his colleagues on testable Java code.

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