Make the Most of Your Microphone

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The first time I stepped up to a microphone, I was eleven years old. I had bravely signed up to sing a song called Froggy Went a Courtin’ all by myself in the talent show at summer camp. The microphone loomed like a leggy, silver bug, and as I stepped up to it I felt very, very small–until I sang my first note into its shiny face. I couldn’t have been more surprised–or more thrilled–at how very, very big my voice sounded as it bounded out of the loudspeakers. Ever since, I’ve had a deep respect and appreciation for microphones. Having sung into them, spoken into them and, many times, struggled with them, I understand the power they have to both lift you up and drag you down.

Microphone technique is one of those things that you tend learn the hard way, and over time. Having spent over thirty years working with microphones, I thought I’d save you a little time and frustration by sharing some of the techniques I’ve learned to make the most of your mic.

First of all, when you speak in public at, let’s say, your average hotel ballroom or conference center, you usually have a choice of three kinds of microphones: A lavalier or lapel mic, that you clip onto your collar; a handheld microphone, usually wireless; and a lectern microphone that comes attached to the lectern behind which you are standing. Let’s look at the dos and don’ts for each type of microphone, and then some best practices for microphones in general.

  1. Lavalier or Lapel mic: These little clip-on microphones free up your hands, which is great for those of us who tend to gesticulate a lot. They also allow you to roam freely, which is useful if you don’t like to be tethered and enjoy being highly interactive with your audience. Since they need to be clipped onto your lapel, you must make sure to wear a shirt or suit with lapels or a v in the front that would allow for easy attachment of the microphone. In addition, they come with a battery-powered receiver that needs

    to be attached somewhere discreetly on your body, usually in the hollow where your rear end and your lower middle back meet. This means you must also make sure to wear a two-piece outfit that has a waistband onto which the transmitter can be hooked (gentlemen can pop the receiver into their suit pockets). So while you might really love to wear your awesome new high-necked dress at your next speaking engagement, don’t do it: It will create a world of frustration for both you and whoever is running sound. To make sure that your lapel mic consistently picks up your voice, don’t just turn your head to face a different section of your audience: Turn your entire upper body, letting your shoulders lead the way.

  1. Handheld mic: When I first started to perform as a professional singer, in bands or solo, microphones usually came with a microphone cord attached to it. To make sure I didn’t trip over the cord, I held the cord out and away from my body with my left hand, and the microphone in my right. Over the years, the dreaded mic cord has given way to wireless microphones, which I think is a vast improvement. When working with a hand-held microphone, make sure the head of the microphone is about a fist-distance away from your mouth. If you hold it too close to your mouth, you’ll sound will be muffled and boom-y. If you hold it too far away from your mouth, it won’t pick up your voice effectively. Since each microphone is unique, take the time to sound out your mic by determining how far or how close you should hold it to your mouth for optimum sound level quality. Also, in order not to hide your face behind your microphone, watch that you don’t hold it straight out. Instead, tip the end you are holding down at a slight angle, as if you are about to lick a slightly tilted ice cream cone. And make sure to turn your shoulders as you turn your head, so the microphone will follow your mouth.
  1. Lectern Mic: Sometimes these microphones are wireless handheld mics, tethered to a mic holder attached to the lectern. And sometimes they are microphones permanently affixed to a flexible microphone holder or arm that is attached to the lectern. Either way, I personally don’t like them, mostly because the arm that is holding the microphone is always too short for me, and the microphones that come with lecterns are often sub-standard. Nevertheless, these lectern microphones are very popular, so you need to know how to use them. The biggest issue I find is that people don’t bother to adjust the mic holder—to pull the mic up towards their mouth if it’s too low, or to pull it down towards them if the mic is pointed up and away from them. Take the time to adjust the mic to suit your height, especially if you are following another speaker who may have adjusted the mic according to their needs. Do not, I repeat, do not bend down to speak into the mic. And if you are on the short side, ask for a small box or step to be placed behind the lectern that you can stand on, so that you’re not hidden from your audience.

A few general tips for managing your mics more effectively:

  • Wireless handheld mics and lapel mics are powered by batteries. Make sure the batteries are fresh (I always load my mic or microphone receiver up with new batteries before every speaking engagement) and that there are extra batteries on hand.
  • To avoid potential embarrassment, turn off or mute your microphone when you are finished with your presentation– or when you visit the bathroom!
  • It may go without saying, but make sure your microphone is turned on before you start to speak. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen speakers thrown off their game because they didn’t take a moment to flip the on switch (or because they didn’t do a sound check to make sure the equipment was working properly).
  • If you point your microphone at a speaker, it will create unpleasant, screechy feedback. This can be problem in hotel rooms, where speakers are hidden in panels dotting the ceiling. During your sound check, take the time to walk around the stage area, talking into your mic, to determine where the ceiling speakers are so you can make sure to avoid them during your presentation.
  • Think like a professional musician, actor or speaker and do a thorough sound check. That means making arrangements to get into the speaking venue far ahead of the meeting attendees, so you can test out sound levels and make sure the equipment is working properly. Work with the person who is in handling audio visual needs at the venue to make sure your microphone is functioning as you need it to.
  • Invest in your own, good quality microphone if you are speaking regularly in public. Too many hotels and conference centers have microphones that are poor in quality or falling apart. Since I like working with sound equipment that isn’t broken or substandard, I bring my own high-quality headset microphone (a fourth kind of mic, one you won’t ordinarily run into) to my speaking engagements. I spent several years looking for just the right microphone, one that stays firmly attached to my head, doesn’t get in the way of my guitar (like a lapel mic does), lets me wander around and has excellent, sound enhancing components. And every time I use it I think “Boy, this was money well-spent).
  • Save your voice: Use a microphone if you are going to speak to more than thirty people for over thirty minutes.

When it’s your turn to stand in front of an audience and speak, your audience needs to hear and receive your wisdom without impediment. With that in mind, do everything and anything in your power to make the most of your mic.