Information for educators, coaches and consultants

Information for educators, coaches and consultants

A surprising number of public speakers/presenters have never learned how to use microphones correctly, or how to avoid preventable (and often self-inflicted) sound problems when delivering or planning presentations.

Although many speaker training programs provide instruction in the use of visual presentation technologies, sound remains an obscure, often neglected subject. The resulting lack of basic audio awareness among speakers/presenters contributes significantly to the poor audio quality and pervasive sound problems that plague the public speaking industry (see article below). Sonic Survival for Speakers addresses the educational aspect of this issue by teaching speakers/presenters the simple, practical rules of sonically successful public speaking.

With the addition of Sonic Survival for Speakers instructional resources to existing speaker education/training programs, students and professional presenters learn how to handle the sonic challenges of diverse speaking environments. Students and clients will learn:

  • How to use microphones correctly.
  • Which types of microphones are most appropriate for their voices, presentations and surroundings.
  • How to avoid the most common audio errors made by speakers and presenters.
  • How to adapt to diverse acoustic environments.
  • How to correctly plan and communicate their audio needs to venues and audiovisual personnel, and how to ensure that such needs will be handled professionally and diligently.

To serve the specialized objectives of educational institutions, speaker training programs and public speaking coaches/consultants, Sonic Survival for Speakers is available as an instructional lecture with Q&A, individual training sessions, or client-specific consulting for students, professionals, organizations and meetings/events.

Educational materials scheduled for release in 2017 include the Sonic Survival for Speakers book and audiobook, and a range of instructional videos in online and DVD formats. For more information about our instructional services and materials, email us at info@sonicsurvival.com or use our Contact Form.

Article:

The article below examines some of the most common types of sound problems that occur when speakers, presenters and meeting/event planners are unfamiliar with basic, practical rules of microphones and sound. The article also addresses preventive, corrective and quality-control techniques; current industry standards and long-term educational needs; and the detrimental effects of poor sound quality on audience engagement/attention.

PUBLIC SPEAKING: WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW ABOUT SOUND CAN HURT YOU.
The Importance of Audio Awareness and Proper Microphone Use
By Brian Young

INTRODUCTION

The disruption of speeches, presentations and events by sound problems is a regrettably common obstacle to successful public speaking. In many environments, issues such as feedback, distortion, wireless microphone difficulties and unintelligible speech are so pervasive that an inexperienced speaker might consider them to be normal.

Sound is a complex medium that is affected by a broad range of variables. Although the most obvious factors are acoustics, equipment quality and the competence of technicians, many serious sound problems are accidentally caused or enabled by public speakers. Some of the most common errors and omissions include:

  • The speaker's incorrect use of the microphone.
  • The speaker's incorrect interaction with the sonic environment.
  • Inappropriate choices by speakers and meeting planners when requesting specific types of microphones.
  • The speaker's and/or meeting planner's failure to understand and properly coordinate the presentation's audio needs.

Most speakers who routinely give audiovisual presentations are reasonably proficient with standard visual tools and applications. However, a widespread lack of basic audio awareness in the world of public speaking perpetuates an environment in which bad sound is more often the rule than the exception.

The disruptive effects of major sound problems are obvious, but some of the more subtle consequences of poor audio quality can be equally detrimental. In an age when listeners expect to hear high-quality sound in most environments (even when watching television or movies at home), presentations with muffled, tinny, distorted or barely intelligible audio can be perceived as amateurish or cheap – causing audiences to doubt the quality and professionalism of the organization, product or service that the presenter seeks to promote.

Another adverse side effect of bad sound is the way in which poor intelligibility undermines the audience's interest level and attention span. Leading acoustics specialist Paul Scarbrough, principal at Akustiks, LLC, summarizes: Because most of our speech interactions are face-to-face, we tend to think that speech communication is robust when, in reality, it is actually quite fragile. Add a little distortion in the audio system, some excessive noise, maybe a presenter with poor diction and all of the sudden the average listener is lucky to be grasping 30-40% of the words. In these circumstances, listener fatigue sets in pretty quickly and their attention wanders.

While audio disruptions and bad sound quality can sabotage presentations, the presence of rich, clear voice amplification and dynamic, high-fidelity music and effects commands attention and heightens emotional impact. This diligent, creative approach to audio is often apparent at high-profile corporate events and other upscale presentations. Although such sonic splendor is not typical of most public speaking engagements, the contrast between these high standards and the inferior audio at the bottom of the scale illustrates the power and importance of sound quality.

Mary Jakubowski is a professional meeting planner who has spent more than twenty eight years managing meetings and events for small businesses, nonprofit organizations and Fortune-500 companies. In her emphatic words, Audio quality can make or break a show!

THE SPEAKER'S ROLE IN PREVENTING SOUND PROBLEMS

There are certain aspects of sound that only a technician can control. However, there are other critical factors that only the person who speaks into the microphone can control. In order to maximize sound quality and minimize the risk of audio disruptions, public speakers must use microphones correctly, interact correctly with the sonic environment and choose appropriate microphones for their needs when presented with choices.

In addition, speakers and meeting planners must be proactive and detail-oriented when coordinating presentations and events, in order to ensure that their audio needs will be handled correctly by venues and technical personnel. Meticulous micromanagement usually is not necessary when dealing with large, high-profile events run by experienced, professional producers and technicians. However, even in such upscale environments, presenters must accurately communicate their audio requirements to the appropriate people far enough in advance to avoid last-minute problems.

In more routine settings – such as smaller meetings and presentations held in hotels, conference centers, houses of worship, school auditoriums, company cafeterias, libraries and municipal buildings – the equipment quality and technical assistance provided by venues can range from excellent to awful. Depending on the situation, there may or may not be a qualified sound technician on site. Because a majority of speaking engagements occur in such settings, a speaker's sonic survival often depends on his or her ability to make the best of the available audio resources. Fortunately, simple, practical techniques can help informed presenters avoid many types of common sound problems.

TYPICAL SOUND PROBLEMS

One of the most harmful audio errors that speakers and performers frequently make is that of holding a hand-held microphone too far from the mouth, or standing too far from microphones attached to lecterns or stands. When this occurs, there may be little or nothing that a technician can do to improve the poor intelligibility and inferior sound quality that results. Speaking too far from the microphone can also lead to feedback, because the technician may be forced to raise the microphone volume beyond its acceptable limit in order to make the speaker's distant voice audible. The higher the microphone volume, the greater the potential for feedback.

Although the ideal mouth-to-microphone distance depends on the speaker, the microphone and other variables, most hand-held microphones usually work well when positioned approximately one to four inches from the mouth. A speaker with a soft voice may need to stay especially close to the microphone in order to be heard, while someone who is yelling may need to hold the microphone much farther than four inches away in order to avoid distortion or painfully loud amplification. Similar guidelines apply to microphones mounted on lecterns and stands, although some types of lectern mics (aka podium mics) are designed to be positioned farther from the speaker's mouth than the hand-held type.

The use of lavalier (clip-on, lapel) microphones is another problematic area. Speakers sometimes wear lavaliers incorrectly, or wear impractical clothing that interferes with the microphone's functionality. Common problems include muffled, tinny or unintelligible sound; feedback; loss of signal, rustling or scratching sounds from clothing; and banging, rattling or jangling sounds from loose jewelry and other accessories.

Additional problems can occur when a speaker with a very soft voice chooses a lavalier instead of a hand-held mic or a headworn mic (the type of headset mic worn by TED Talk presenters and many motivational speakers, ministers, etc.). Lavaliers can be particularly problematic for soft-spoken presenters in large, reverberant rooms, where intelligibility can be low and the potential for feedback high. Unlike hand-held or headworn microphones, lavalier mics are not designed to be positioned close to the speaker's mouth, where the vocal sound is strongest. When a presenter's voice does not project well, the lavalier mic must be turned up very high in order for the presenter to be heard. Such over-amplification through public address systems – especially in large, reverberant rooms – often causes feedback and other unpleasant side effects.

The problems described above are just a few of the audio perils that can plague public speakers who do not know how to correctly interact with microphones and diverse speaking environments.

SOLUTIONS AND PREVENTIVE MEASURES

The sonic qualities of individual voices, microphones, sound systems and acoustic environments can vary greatly. Because of these perpetually fluctuating factors, some of the rules for handling microphones and audio issues are situational rather than absolute. There are, however, certain uniform practices that will significantly reduce the potential for sound problems and help maximize audio quality in most situations.

One example of a standard preemptive measure employed by professional speakers and technicians is the sound check. During the sound check, which takes place before the audience arrives, the volume and tone of the speaker's microphone are optimized for his/her individual voice. These adjustments establish an appropriate volume level, maximize quality, clarity and intelligibility, and help prevent feedback. When multiple speakers will share one microphone, a single sound check usually does not provide optimal audio settings for all speakers; however, the procedure should still be performed with at least one speaker in order to test the microphone for feedback and confirm that the volume and tone are set within an acceptable range. Additional adjustments can usually be made as other speakers use the microphone, if a technician is present.

A typical sound check for a speaker may take anywhere from ten seconds to a few minutes, depending on the speaker's voice, the nature of the presentation and other variables. During the sound check, the presenter should speak with the same volume and tone that he/she expects to project to the audience – demonstrating the loudest and softest moments of the speech. This is best accomplished by reciting a small sample of the speech, rather than by simply repeating testing, one-two-three, a few times. In addition to enabling the technician to make adjustments before the event begins, the sound check helps familiarize the speaker with the sound of his or her amplified voice and the correct handling and positioning of the microphone.

In a nonprofessional venue, the ability to make such adjustments may be quite limited. Nonetheless, speakers should make every effort to test their microphones before their presentations and make any adjustments that are possible.

Another essential aspect of sonically successful presentations is the proper advance planning and coordination of the speaker's audiovisual needs. Technical difficulties often arise when venues and technicians have not received accurate, detailed information about a presentation's audiovisual requirements. Except when the nature of a speaking engagement is such that this type of information is not applicable, it should never be assumed that a venue will automatically be able to meet all of a presenter's technical needs – especially on short notice. Details such as the number and types of microphones; media types and file formats; audio and video playback equipment; the stage and room layouts and lighting; and other technical considerations must be coordinated in advance of the event. Depending on the type of event, it may be up to the speaker, the meeting planner or others to manage such information.

When planning an event in an unfamiliar venue, an on-site assessment (site survey) of the facility should be performed well in advance of the event. If the event will utilize the venue's microphones and sound system, and the quality of such equipment is unknown, the client or meeting planner should request a demonstration during the site survey to ensure that the audio quality is acceptable.

CONCLUSION

The preceding examples of sound problems and solutions illustrate a few of the many ways in which the audio awareness of experienced, professional speakers and meeting planners enables them to survive the sonic pitfalls of diverse speaking environments. Even the most technophobic presenters can easily learn these basic audio survival skills without entering the complex world of audio engineering. Unfortunately, such knowledge is the exception to the rule among most people who speak to audiences through microphones.

Although there are many educational resources for speakers who wish to master the visual aspects of their presentations, the correct use of microphones and prevention of sound problems is an area that has not been adequately addressed in the world of public speaking. Perhaps this is related to a general fear of a difficult subject, or the erroneous belief that sound is solely someone else'sresponsibility. Neither perception is valid. Sound may be a complex and capricious medium, but the basic rules of sonically successful public speaking are simple, intuitive and essential.

As more speakers become empowered with such knowledge, fewer meetings, presentations and events will be sabotaged by self-inflicted sound problems and poor audio quality. In addition, as informed speakers begin to demand better equipment and services from venues and technicians, more audiences and presenters will reap the benefits of improved industry standards – even inaverage environments.

The importance of including basic microphone/audio coping skills in speaker education and training programs – from college classrooms to professional environments – cannot be overstated. The ability to hear the speaker clearly and without interruption is essential to the success of all presentations, and the audio information gap that has compromised this key principle for so long must be closed. As with the eloquent, passionate delivery of a well-crafted speech, or the high-quality projection of visually dynamic images, the amplification of sound should always enhance – not undermine – the impact of the speaker's message.

© Copyright 2016 Brian Young