Presentations: The Mystery of the Microphone

The main purpose of a microphone (mike) is straightforward – to amplify your voice. But that’s not the only reason for using one. An important reason is to prevent vocal strain. It’s surprising how often people shout into a microphone, when turning up the volume would have a more pleasing effect.

Effective use of a microphone requires some basic knowledge, awareness and experience. Unfortunately, too often these factors are not simultaneously in play when a microphone is in use. I’ve heard speakers, unfamiliar with the use of a mike use it incorrectly thereby detracting from their delivery or simply become flustered with the technology. Microphones are not complicated, but unfamiliarity with their operation can create problems for a presenter and embarrassment for, or harassment of the audience!

Firstly, when do you need one? There are 3 main determining factors – the size of the audience, the size of the room and the strength of your voice. Other factors include the length of your presentation, the room’s acoustics and background noise like air-conditioning. Logically, for an audience of 40 or less people in a small room a microphone may be unnecessary. If this is the case there is no point in using one. The bigger the room, the larger the audience and the longer the presentation the more need there will be for a microphone.

However, not all mike’s are created equal. Although there are some good deals around, price is a reasonable benchmark of quality. The same can be said for amplifiers or public address systems. No matter how good your voice is, it is unlikely to sound like much on a poor sound system. You should also consider the different microphone configurations – hand held (wired and cordless), on a mike stand (limiting your movement) or a headset. For example, a pickup is used to amplify a string instrument from a location very close to the strings. Comedians prefer hand held mike’s because they accommodate vocal variations which are part of a comedy act. Singer-guitarists may prefer a mike on a stand (or a headset) so that they can play the guitar and sing simultaneously. Speakers who use body language and gestures as part of their act like the headset, as it allows freedom of movement and consistently remains the same distance from the mouth. The same would apply to a singer pianist.

But the microphone provided at your event may not suit your presentation style. This possibility begs the question: Should you invest in your own?

I’ve been surprised to find that, in contrast to professional singers, most professional speakers I’ve met do not own a microphone. When one is needed, I almost always have mine with me because then at least I know that the front part of the system is top quality and I know exactly how it works. I use a Countryman headset with a Shure receiver and transmitter. It’s never, ever let me down. You may also invest in a battery tester. Only ever go on stage with fully charged batteries. There are few things more annoying for everyone than a sharp drop in volume due to instant power loss.

Experienced presenters and musicians will never use a microphone without a sound check. This confirms the overall sound, the desired volume settings and the compatibility of the microphone with the amplifier. This requires turning up early. If a receiver is part of the microphone kit, you will want to decide where to wear it so that it remains secure and does not create an embarrassing bulge on your person.

When coughing or clearing your throat, be careful not to do so directly into the mike or you’ll blast your audience clean out of their chairs. Practice speaking in a normal voice during the sound check. It’s not necessary to over project or shout – the mike is there to create amplification for you.

If you perform or speak to audiences regularly, microphones are an essential item in your kit, not optional. Get your own quality mike and learn to use it properly. You’ll look and sound more professional, and you’ll save your voice for the next day. Besides, the peace of mind you’ll have from using your own gear is priceless.