As a professional conference speaker – especially if you use simultaneous interpreters – you should have basic microphone skills. This post explains how to use conference microphones correctly, the so called “microphone etiquette” or “microphone discipline.”
First of all, microphones are unforgiving, especially in a studio setting. Actors and voice over talents spend years perfecting the art of using the microphone.
You, as a public speaker, should internalize some basic principles. If you remember them subconsciously during the entire time you are on the stage, it will be much easier for you, your listeners and the interpreters.
Microphones are extremely sensitive, there is no need to raise your voice. Adjusting volume is the job of sound technicians. If you are too loud, your voice may get tired easily. If you whisper into the microphone, however, your speech may be less intelligible too.
Never tap your microphone to make sure it works. Never blow into it or whistle. The taps may sound harmless to you over the PA system, however, interpreters in the booths are wearing headsets and you are tapping directly into them. More than one interpreter has grimaced in pain when this happened.
If you absolutely need to make sure your microphone works, snap your fingers several times in front on the microphone but do not touch it. You will be able to hear the sound through the PA system.
Do everything in your power not to drop or bump a “hot” microphone (i.e. the microphone which is switched ON.) Never drop a hot microphone on the table.
Although modern simultaneous interpretation equipment may sometimes be fitted with hearing protection circuits for the interpreters, its use is not universal.
The resulting acoustic shock and feedback in the headsets may not only inconvenience in interpreters, but also damage their hearing temporarily or permanently, so we are not speaking about mere inconvenience.
Types of Microphones:
Head-worn: probably the easiest kind. Used often for big conventions and stage presentations. Think TED, for example.
The microphone fits comfortably around your neck, and you do not need to manipulate it in any way after you have been fitted with it. Used jointly with a wireless transmitter.
Lapel mic: the second most convenient type of microphone. Much easier to put on and take off. It may create more background noise because it is farther away from the mouth.
It can also – in some cases – create rustling sound, if a piece of clothing accidentally rubs against it, so caution should be exercised. Used jointly with a wireless transmitter as well.
Handheld Microphone: the least convenient kind, usually used for Q&A.
It requires very strict microphone discipline. It can be installed on the microphone stand or actually held in your hand.
The most common mistake when using this kind of microphone is to hold it too close to your mouth.
The standard recommended distance is about 4-6 inches (10-15 cm). If the microphone is too close, it will pick up the popping and hissing sounds of sibilants and plosives in your speech (“S”, “P”, “T” etc.) and will distort your speech sometimes beyond recognition.
Tip for conference organizers:
If you use one or more handheld microphones for Q&A, you, basically, have three options:
1) Install one or more wireless or wired handheld type microphone on a stand in the conference room and ask people to come to it to ask questions. More suitable for large rooms.
2) Assign “microphone pages” i.e. each microphone will be held all the times by a specially assigned person who will move around the room and bring the microphone to the person who wants to ask a question.
Assign as many pages as there are microphones.
Recommended for medium to small size rooms. A page must never hand over the microphone to a delegate but hold onto it firmly, otherwise, the delegate may grab the microphone, “monopolize” it and a dialogue will turn into a monologue.
3) Delegates will handle the microphone by passing it to each other.
Not recommended, because it may take more time to pass the microphone around, the person asking the question may accidentally turn the microphone off, or may monopolize time by “making a speech” instead of asking a question.
There is also a greater chance that a “hot” microphone is dropped or bumped. It will create an “acoustic shock” in interpreters’ headsets – a very dangerous situation that can cause hearing loss.
We know we repeat ourselves, but it is every interpreter’s nightmare! If you are asking a question, never try to take the microphone from a page and do not hold onto the microphone.
Microphone pages should never release the microphone they are handling.
Tabletop microphones: Commonly used for round tables and panel discussions. If it is a panel discussion and you are using tabletop microphones, make sure that you turn your microphone OFF when you are done speaking.
Most modern microphones have ON and OFF lights. It is important, because – if you do not turn your mic OFF – interpreters may hear other conversations, background noise etc. and may not be able to interpret.
Do not move the hot tabletop mic around the table. You may hurt interpreters’ hearing.
Never tap fingers on the table where the hot tabletop microphone is.
“Floor” microphones (i.e microphones in the conference room or hall) must not be used to reproduce sound from computer speakers, laptops, video projectors, etc.
These devices must be directly plugged into he PA system, otherwise, sound quality will be too bad to be able to provide any interpretation.
Finally, remember: what the microphone has not picked up the interpreters cannot hear and therefore cannot interpret. If someone asks a question in the room without a microphone, either repeat the question or ask the speaker to use a microphone.
Microphone discipline is a skill and should be an integrated part of your public speaking skills.
If you are interested in more technical details about simultaneous interpreting equipment, see our post called Client Provided Simultaneous Interpretation Equipment.
We also published an updated version of this article in the AIIC Blog. See Speakers, mind your microphone manners by Cyril Flerov.