Public Speakers, Use the Damn Microphone


“Can everyone hear me okay without this?” say the worst public speakers when they step up to the stage. If three people in the front row say yes, off goes the microphone. And then anybody who is hard of hearing (or listening remotely, or sitting in the back of the room) can’t hear you. Use the damn mic, you jerk.

Erika Hewitt explains the hard-of-hearing person’s perspective in an article aimed at preachers but applicable to anyone who speaks to crowds. There are a lot of people in this world who don’t hear well, including people who need hearing aids but are too embarrassed to go get fitted for them. Even when people do have hearing aids, hearing aids are not magic. They make sounds louder, including other voices in the room. There is no feature that zeroes in on whoever says “I’ll just speak loudly” and beams their words into a person’s brain.

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People don’t even need a medical problem with their ears to suffer when you fail to pick up the mic. Depending on the room, you could be failing to reach most of the people in the back, for example. And if there’s a webcast or a conference call going on, any words that aren’t spoken into the mic just disappear in the ether.

If you’re the speaker, not only should you use the damn mic, you should repeat anything that wasn’t spoken into it. If somebody asks a question, repeat it for all to hear. If another presenter pipes up to add a few words, relay that info too (or hand the mic to them).

Hewitt has more tips to help everyone hear you, not just those three people in the front row. Here are a few:

  • If someone needs you to repeat something, and especially if they have to ask twice, change your wording.
  • Minimize the layering of words and music at the same time (e.g., a sermon delivered with piano music as a backdrop). “Hearing aids switch into music mode,” says one hearing impaired person, “and you might as well be talking with a pillow over your face.”
  • When possible, have someone carry a second microphone to the people speaking; cultivate patience to wait for the microphone.

She also points out that hearing loops, which transmit directly to hearing aids, are “profoundly helpful” to people with disabilities; ask if your venue has one installed. And if you’re in the front row with sensitive ears, do a favor for everyone else. When the speaker asks if they’re loud enough without a microphone, stand up and yell nice and loud:

Use the damn mic.

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