When you were a teenager, did you belt out your favourite pop song holding a hairbrush to your mouth? What’s with that? Yet, I bet it made you feel like a star, made you feel powerful. A real microphone can give you that same power, authority and impact that all presenters seek. As the famous American TV personality, Willard Scott once said, and I paraphrase, “Without a microphone, I’m just an ordinary person”.
Often, when you invite an audience member up onto the stage and offer them a microphone, often the offer is rejected. And this is usually to the cries of “I can’t hear you!” from the back the room. I think this happens because, either the speaker overestimates their ability to project their voice, or their just not comfortable using a microphone. The same often happens during Q & A segments, when the questioner can’t wait for the handheld microphone to get to them. When this happens, many of us don’t hear the question and if the speaker doesn’t repeat the question, we are all left confused.
However, sometimes it’s a good thing that an invited audience member refuses the microphone; this is because of the common mistakes newbie speakers make using a microphone. I like to categorise these common mistakes under the headings of “The Head Turn”, “The Fish” and “The Navel Visit.” See the video below for demonstrations of these common mistakes.
The other mistake is, that just because you have a microphone in your hand doesn’t mean you have to become, “Mister Speaker Man!” or a “Circus Ringmaster!” Just be your usual, conversational, interesting self.
Most people are not comfortable using the microphone because they’re not familiar with the many different types of microphone out there. Below you can familiarise yourself with some different types of microphones, the advantage and disadvantages of each type and how to use them correctly.
Advantages, Disadvantages & Techniques
The Handheld Microphone
David Glickman, an American professional speaker and comedian, tells a story about when he had just finished presenting a gig. The story goes that a well-heeled gentleman approached him and asked him, “Are you able to do this performance for us?” David said, “Sure! How many will there be?” The slightly surprising reply was, “Oh! It’ll just be my wife and me. Should I ask my family and friends?” What could David say? “Yea. Ask the neighbours, ask your kids, the more the merrier.” When David arrived for the gig, the number of people who were there, were, SEVEN! However, David still used a microphone. Why? Because he believes that the use of a microphone, especially a handheld microphone, gives you authority, authenticity and raises you to a higher level.
Punching the punch word – The advantages of a handheld microphone is that it gives you greater dynamic options. When David said “SEVEN!”, he got a laugh. He got the laugh because he paused, held the microphone close to his mouth and punched that punch word SEVEN! You can only do this well, with a handheld mic.
Punching punch phrases – Holding a microphone close to your mouth not only helps your punch your punch words, it also comes in handy for punching punch phrases. This is indicated by the example below, with the punch phrase at the end of the sentence in red. “When people heckle me, I tell them, ‘I have the microphone.‘
The proximity effect – Similarly, there’s what’s called the proximity effect. Without going into technicalities, the closer you hold a mic to your mouth, the more it highlights the bass tones of your voice and subdues the higher frequencies. This is also called the “bass tip-up” effect. A lower tone makes you sound more authoritative, personal and impactful.
Like a prop, a microphone is something else to worry about, something else that can go wrong. Did I mention Murphy’s Law? And unlike most other fixed mics, the handheld mic suffers from the risk of the Head Turn, the Big Fish and the Navel Visit, mentioned above.
Obviously, avoid the “The Head Turn”, “The Fish” and “The Navel Visit”.
And unless you’re punching a punch word or have a purpose to hold the mic really close to your mouth, don’t. They’ll hear your heavy breathing, and while it may excite some, it’s not recommended.
Also when you hold the mic too close, words starting with ‘P’ will make undesirable popping sounds.
The Lapel Microphone
A lapel microphone, also called a Lavalier (Lav. for short) or a body mic, is a fixed mic. That is, it’s hand and mind free. Your hands are free to do whatever you like with them, within reason of course. It also picks up minimal background noise and is less visible.
While it’s a fixed microphone, the turning of the head away from the mic can still result in volume variations.
Other disadvantages occur when the mic is not fitted properly. This results in disruptive sounds produced by the mic rubbing against clothing such as jackets or even jewellery. Even synthetic closing can create disruptive sounds due to the build-up and discharge of static electricity.
And of course, it lacks the other advantages of a handheld mic mentioned above.
While it’s called a lapel mic, the label is not always the best place to secure the mic. I’ve noticed on a number of panel shows that the host has the lapel mic positioned centrally on a tie or the T-shirt collar, while the guests have it on the side towards the host. They choose these locations to maximise and maintain as constant a volume as possible.
Regardless of where the mic is positioned, it should be secured 12-20 cm from the mouth and be checked for any potential brush past problems mentioned. Always check the mic’s volume ahead of time.
The headset microphone has all the advantages of the lapel mic, including constant volume level. This is because it remains equidistant from your mouth.
It’s more visible than the lapel microphone.
As with all mics, correct placement is important. The recommended placement is 25-50 mm from the side of the mouth. That is, not right in front of the mouth, as this can cause the popping of words starting with the letter ‘P’ and also will highlight the sound of heavy breathing. As mentioned, while this may excite some, it’s not recommended. Mind you, having the mic right in front of your mouth is ok for special effects and singing.
The Gooseneck microphone is often called a Lectern, Podium or Console microphone. It has both the dynamic advantages of the handheld mic and the hands-free advantages of the lapel and headset mics.
Unfortunately, the Gooseneck mic is a fixed mic to some extent, tying you to the lectern to some degree.
Because the lectern, or similar stand, creates a barrier between you and the audience, your body language such as gestures, are less visible. This means you will have less of a connection with the audience.
On top of that, being tied to the lectern means you won’t have the opportunity to use the full length of the stage. Again this reduces your opportunities to connect with the section of the audience away from you.
The neck of a Gooseneck microphone is long and semi-flexible and hence why it’s called a Gooseneck mic. This design allows you to adjust the mic to your height or point it at your mouth depending on your position. However, most speakers are too nervous or unfamiliar with the Gooseneck mic, to be comfortable enough to adjust the height or position of this style of mic. And rightly so, because you need to take care when adjusting the mic, to only hold the neck and not the mic head while adjusting it. Usually, the volume is turned up when this mic and by grabbing the mic head, it will make an awful noise and heard by all.
At a convention this year many of the speakers, keen to connect, drifted quite some distance, away from the podium and mic. Miraculously, I could still hear them, as if they were actually miked up. I was suspicious and went to speak to the sound guy afterwards. He confirmed my suspicions. He had cranked up the volume to match the speakers’ distance from the podium. That guy was a life safer and should have been given a bonus. Let me just say, you won’t always be that lucky.
I only mention this mic to allow me to illustrate a point.
Uni-directional – The shotgun microphone is usually a uni-directional microphone. It is primarily restricted to recording musical instruments, excluding all other nearby sounds.
Omni-directional – On the other hand, most other mics are omni-directional or have a specific pattern such as a cardioid mic. Cardioid (from the Greek καρδία “heart”) means it has a heart shape sound-receiving pattern when looking from the top. This means the sweet spots are front, top, and sides.
Now you may well ask, “Where’s the front? Well, usually it’s located where the on/off switch is or where the brand name is located. Bottom line; check it out well in advance.
One other aspect of a microphone is, whether it’s best to use a wireless microphone or a corded microphone. Like everything in life, there are advantages and disadvantages to all comparable items.
Have you ever seen one of those cartoons, involving a puppy dog that sees something, gets excited, and sprints off at breakneck speed, to only go flying up in the air when it reaches the end of its tether? Pretty cruel hey? Well, have some sympathy for me. Once I went running across the stage with a corded mic and mindless of the very short leash they had me on, it was the mic that went flying with me flat on my back. Believe it or not, to compound my sad situation, later that night, I got entangled in the cord and tripped up. Probably the funniest speech I’ve ever given unintentionally.
Also, please don’t play with the mic’s cord. You are telegraphing your nervous state. I think you get the idea.
Microphones can be your friend or your foe.
Knowledge goes a long way to make it your friend and help you connect with your listeners.
Speak to connect, to make that difference.