Speak Up!

Our world today is noisier than ever. Airplanes, jackhammers, MP3 players – whether the noise is self-created or environmental, absolute silence is almost non-existent. And when the volume of that noise reaches unsafe levels, especially for prolonged periods of time, damage to our delicate hearing mechanisms is likely to result.

I know this to be true from personal experience. As a Toastmaster who has to make a conscious effort to hear and understand others, I’m paying for the ignorance of my youth, when I worked in a noisy factory, went to painfully loud concerts and eventually worked as a professional musician, all with no hearing protection. I’m not alone, though. According to the U.S. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), 26 million Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 may have permanent hearing damage from excessive noise exposure. And the World Health Organization estimates that there are about 280 million people around the globe with moderate to profound hearing loss in both ears.

In addition, the American Tinnitus Association estimates that another 12 million people have tinnitus, a persistent ringing in the ears that can interfere with other frequencies (especially higher ones), and in extreme cases, can actually be so loud that it becomes all but debilitating. I have both hearing loss and tinnitus, so listening to someone give a speech is often a challenge.

I’ve been asked, “Why don’t you wear hearing aids?” Well, I sometimes do, since I’m one of the fortunate ones who can afford them (insurance normally won’t pay for them). But hearing aids are nearly useless at a Toastmasters meeting. Why? Because hearing aids, while they do make it easier to hear the speaker, are an almost-painful nuisance when the audience applauds or laughs heartily, or when the gavel is banged on the podium. Those sounds are magnified several times, the same way a speaker’s voice is, turning a hearing aid into a jolting loudspeaker inside the ear.

Given the number of people whose hearing is less than perfect, it’s reasonable for all of us to assume that when we speak to a group of any size, there is bound to be someone in the audience with a hearing impairment. As speakers, we have a certain obligation to make sure people can hear and understand us, just as those people have an obligation to do what they can to hear us speak. So, having been on both sides of the podium, I’m suggesting a few things we can all do to help make both the speaking and listening experiences more effective and enjoyable. 

When You’re the Speaker:
As a good general practice, scope out the room when you first enter it. Think about where you will stand to make maximum visual and auditory contact with everyone.

I have found that when many Toastmasters give presentations, especially novice speakers, they tend to vocalize too softly – as if they were talking to someone close at hand, even if some listeners are 30 feet away. So speaking louder in general is a good idea, and an even better idea when dealing with listeners who may have trouble hearing. Now, you may be wondering, “How do I know who can or can’t hear me?” There actually are a few ways. 

• First, consider the ages of your audience members. Instances and severity of hearing loss and tinnitus both increase with age, so if someone in your audience is older – especially over 50 – take into account that the person may not hear you as well as the 20-year-olds in the audience. In addition to helping you keep your volume up, this practice may inspire you to work on your diction to make sure your words are easily understood.

Daniel Sklare, an expert on hearing-related issues, agrees it’s important to speak precisely – and not too fast – when there are listeners with hearing difficulties.

“Make sure the speed and clarity of your words are well-matched to your audience,” says Sklare, a program director at the NIDCD in Bethesda, Maryland. 

• You should also remember to look up from your notes as much as possible to face the audience; when you do this, your voice goes out, not down, and a hard-of-hearing audience member can figure out what you’re saying better by watching your lips and your body language. These are good general suggestions for public speaking, anyway. 

Using visual aids is also helpful – and be sure they are readable and not too busy or complex, says Sklare, who is responsible for clinical research on hearing disorders at the NIDCD. “Research that’s been done, and that the NIDCD has backed up, demonstrates that young and older people, whether they are wearing a hearing aid or not, have benefited very handsomely from combining auditory and visual elements in speech,” he notes, adding that well-prepared slide presentations – such as PowerPoint – tend to be very effective.

Another way to tell if a person is having trouble hearing you is if their interest seems to be flagging and their body language indicates that they would obviously rather be somewhere else. True, they may have had a hard day, or have a lot on their mind, or it could be – but hopefully isn’t – that your speech is just plain boring. But it’s also possible that they can’t hear you very well. In this case, walk over to where they’re sitting as you speak, and perhaps raise your voice ever so slightly or punctuate a certain point to get their attention. Don’t do it threateningly, but in a manner that makes them feel like a valued member of the audience. Whether the problem is with their ears or your speech, it’s a good way to keep the listener engaged.

                    "As speakers, we have a certain obligation to make sure people can
                    hear and understand us, just as those people have an obligation
                    to do what they can to hear us speak."

If you’re a woman, keep in mind that people with tinnitus may often have trouble hearing you, because the ringing in their ears can cancel out some of the higher frequencies of the female voice. So if you’ve been told that you need to project your soft voice a little farther, this is one more reason to do that.

Sklare, of the NIDCD, says the environment in which you give your speech can also play an important role for the hearing-impaired listener. For one thing, you want it to be a quiet place with no distractions around. And if you can speak in a room with a public address system, it would be ideal if the system is a Hi-Fidelity one that has as much amplification as possible without causing too much distortion.

The onus shouldn’t always be put on the speaker, however. Public discourse is a partnership between the speaker and the listener, so the audience has a responsibility too.

Dr. Gerald Hickson is a physician and an associate professor of hearing and speech sciences at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He regularly addresses groups of medical professionals of varying sizes around the country. Depending on the audience size, he speaks both with and without a microphone, so he is someone who is very aware of the auditory needs of his listeners.

“You have to think about what you’re going to do to ensure that the audience is focused on what you have to say,” says Hickson in an authoritative but not overbearing voice he has developed through years of public speaking. “One of those things, of course, is to make sure everyone can hear you, and you need to take into account that there may be one or more people in the room who have a hearing impairment. Assessing their body language is one way you might be able to determine that.”

“At the same time,” adds Hickson, “as a listener you have to be aware of the everyday things in life that might distract you, that may stop you from getting the most out of a speech. So the listener does have a certain amount of responsibility to take whatever steps are available to get the most out of what the speaker has to say.”

When You’re the Hearing-impaired Listener: 
Don’t get frustrated when a speaker doesn’t seem to have your hearing problem in mind, especially if the speaker is a younger person. And don’t feel guilty about your hearing impairment. Others can’t see your problem, so it’s up to you to take steps to deal with it. Trying some of these ideas might help: 

• No matter what the seating configuration is, sit at or near the front of the room (assuming the speaker is in the front). Being shy and sitting at the back of the room, especially when there is no amplification, almost guarantees that you won’t be able to hear everything. If the seating is in a horseshoe configuration, sit with your weaker ear toward the podium. If the seats are arranged straight across in rows, try to sit near the middle. This will allow you to hear the speaker better should he or she walk from one side of the room to the other. 

• If the person giving the speech is wearing a microphone, determine the placement of the public address speakers (either speaker cabinets or ceiling speakers) and try to position yourself in the path of their projection. 

• If you’re still having trouble hearing the speaker, make the simple motion of cupping your hand behind your ear when the speaker makes eye contact with you. You may be doing everyone a favor, because chances are that if you’re indeed sitting at the front near the speaker, you aren’t the only one having trouble hearing. 

And when you’re the speaker and are also hearing-impaired: 
Watch your audience. Use eye contact to judge their reactions to your speaking voice as well as your speech. 

Don’t yell. Those of us who don’t hear well sometimes tend to talk pretty loudly, so practice speaking at a level that’s commanding but doesn’t make people feel like they’re being yelled at. After your next speech, ask your evaluator how your volume was (although more volume is still better than not enough).

In the end, we can always learn to be better listeners even if we’re not hearing-impaired, and we can all become better speakers by being cognizant of voice projection and volume, and making eye contact as much as possible with the entire audience. In fact, focusing more on the audience’s need to hear may actually help alleviate some of your nervousness as you speak, and make you a better communicator in general. So speak up! 

Rick Moore, ATMB, is a member of Nashville Toastmasters in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a professional freelance writer. Contact him at www.rickmoorewriter.com.