Microphone Etiquette 101

“Is This Thing On?”

By Paul Konikowski, CTS-D
Lectern With Podium Microphones And Confidence Monitor
How many times have you heard these four words spoken into a podium microphone at a live event?  Or at the beginning of a televised speech? Or in a similar scene portrayed in a movie? (The last case usually followed by a cinematic squeal of feedback that magically fades.)  Or maybe the public speaker tapped the microphone a few times, or worse, decided to forcefully blow directly into the microphone, embedding his or her germs deep into the windscreen.

Unfortunately, our society has taught these awful habits to us through film, plays and TV shows, so much that we when we find that we are the ones doing the public speaking, we actually think it’s what we are supposed to do when we approach the podium.  Well, I am here to tell you its not what you are supposed to do; and to teach you some proper microphone etiquette for public speaking.

First, lets list two big “Don’ts” when using microphones for public speaking:

  • Don’t blow into the microphone, any microphone, ever.  (Unless blowing or pink noise is the native language of your audience).  Blowing into a microphone only creates an awful experience for the audience and may actually damage the diaphragm in the mic capsule.
  • Don’t tap on the microphone, or the mic stand, or the lectern if you are using one.  In fact, don’t touch the microphone at all, unless it looks like the microphone is way too low or way too high.  If that is the case, carefully and gently adjust the microphone height (using two hands) so that the mic capsule (the end) is roughly on the same “level” as your mouth, aiming directly into your mouth or nose. There are exceptions, but in most cases, you should keep your hands off the microphone and mic stand.

Exceptional example: I once worked an outdoor event at Yale University where the main speaker was former President of the United States, Bill Clinton.  Preceeding President Clinton was a number of “Yalees” giving short speeches and getting the crowd pumped up.  The last of these speakers, who finally introduced Mr. Clinton, was much shorter in height than the previous speakers, and pulled the two microphones way down when they spoke, then bent them way back up when Mr. Clinton took the stage.  The podium microphones were the flexible gooseneck type, with the heads taped together.  By the time President Clinton got to the lectern, the goosenecks were “bent to hell”, with the two mic capsules aiming in different directions, and neither mic aimed correctly.  If it were any other gig, I would have quickly run out on the stage and fixed the goosenecks myself.  But anyone who has ever worked a “White House gig” knows you NEVER make any sudden moves, or you might get tackled by the Secret Services, or worse, shot by a sniper.  (Yes, there were snipers on the nearby rooftops.)  Luckily, Mr. Clinton recognized the microphone pretzel, and carefully adjusted the mics so they were properly aimed before he started talking.  I was impressed, along the entire production staff.  Disaster averted.

So, if you are not supposed to blow, tap, or say “Is this thing on?”, how should a person approach a microphone?  Well, the best practice is a combination of a) assuming the mic is working perfectly, while b) simultaneously being ready for the mic to not be working at all:

  • First, approach the microphone slowly, and confidently.
  • Place your notes on the lectern in such a way that you can easily read them without turning pages.  Mark the order of your notes in advance using large numbers in the four corners of each page.
  • If you brought bottled water or another beverage, open it, take a sip, and place it somewhere where it’s easily accessible, but out of sight from the audience or cameras.  Put your drink somewhere you can’t accidentally knock it over.  If you can, use a separate dedicated shelf, or table, for drinks.  Don’t bend or squat to put your drink on the floor, it just looks awkward.
  • If a sound guy (or sound girl) is running the PA system, try to make eye contact with them.  They will nod or point at you if they are ready, or hold up their hand telling you to halt if they are not ready.
  • Smile, and say something simple, short, and positive to test the microphone.  My personal favorites are “hello”, “good morning”, “good afternoon”, or “good evening, ladies and gentlemen”. Speak directly into the microphone, and listen for feedback. If you hear feedback, or if it seems too loud, back off the mic a few inches.  If there is a sound crew, wait a few seconds, and continue. They will address the feedback or volume issues, but they will need you to keep talking to adjust the microphone(s) properly.
  • Instead of saying, “Is this thing on?” or “can everyone hear me okay?” (the answers to which will never tell you if a mic is not working properly), try something like this instead: “Before I begin my presentation, I want to make sure everyone here can hear me, loudly and clearly.  So please do me a favor, and raise your hand if you clearly understood everything I just said”.  If you don’t see hands raised from the front to the very back of the room, check to see if the microphone is switched off, then move closer to the microphone, and repeat the question until you see enough hands raised.
  • If you don’t have a sound crew, and need to raise or lower the volume yourself, do it in very tiny increments, repeating the previous step until you are convinced the entire audience can hear you.
  • Before you start your actual speech, thank the audience, the previous presenters, and any volunteers or sponsors of the event. This gives the sound engineer a few seconds to fine tune the mic to your voice.
  • If you are using a wired or wireless handheld microphone, try to hold it very close to your mouth, at such an angle that it aims into your mouth.  Do not pretend you are a reporter on the local TV news, holding the mic near your chest or stomach.  Those TV reporters and sportscasters use special microphones that allow that sort of thing, and they are trained to aim them directly at their mouths, or the mouths of the people they are interviewing.
  • If you need to cough, or sneeze, turn away from the microphone and the audience.  It’s much better to pause and regain your composure, than to subject your audience (and possibly your recording) to these very natural, but very nasty, noises.
  • If your audience laughs, sighs, or applauds during your speech, pause a few extra seconds until they are done.  Don’t rush to start talking again.  Instead, pretend you are giving the State Of The Union Address, or a stand-up comic.  It’s all about timing.
  • When you have finished your presentation, thank the audience again, smile, collect your notes, take a bow, or wave as you slowly “exit stage left”. Do not turn off the microphone or adjust anything.  If you accidentally exit the wrong way, or leave something behind, don’t turn back.

If you take my advice and follow the above tips, you will be an effective public speaker, and any fear you have of microphones will fade away.  If you have any other tips to share with my readers, or any microphone horror stories, please add them to the comments section below, or email me at pkav.info@gmail.com.

Thank you for listening to me speak to you today.  I hope you learned something valuable.  Good night, and good luck.