The Power of Sound


The microphone is an essential tool for many public speakers, and dynamic, high-quality sound can add dimension, emotion and excitement to a speech or an event. If not used correctly, however, microphones can cause problems that distract speakers, irritate audiences and ruin presentations. Fortunately, there are simple ways to ensure proper microphone use, whether it is at your next business meeting, Toastmasters speech contest or wedding toast.

Mastering the Mic
Every voice, microphone, sound system and speaking environment is different, so similar mic choices and techniques will not necessarily produce similar results in all situations. It is important, however, for all speakers to remember a few basic tips when using microphones. Test the sound before presenting. When preparing to use a mic in a club meeting or elsewhere, get there well before your audience arrives.

If you are speaking in a venue that does not have a professional technician, ask someone to check the sound quality, in the area where the audience will be seated, as you recite some of your speech through the microphone; then make any adjustments that you can to maximize clarity and eliminate feedback (those screeching, hooting or howling sounds that often disrupt presentations). If you are speaking on a professional stage, ask for a “sound check.”

You won’t always be able to choose your microphone but, when given the opportunity, selecting the right type of mic for your voice, your presenting style and your surroundings can help ensure your sonic success.

Wireless Lavalier Microphones
Many speakers prefer wireless lavalier (“clip-on”) microphones because they allow the presenter to roam the stage with both hands free. However, lavaliers can sometimes be more problematic than other types of mics, especially when a speaker has a very soft voice, and/or when the room is large, reverberant, prone to feedback or all of those things.

A lavalier microphone cannot be positioned close to the mouth, where the sound is strongest, so it’s not always a good choice for a speaker with a soft voice. The microphone may struggle to pick up and amplify a soft voice, thereby making it difficult for the speaker to be heard clearly in a large room. Although turning up the microphone volume might seem like the obvious solution, this often causes feedback rather than solving the problem.

The position of a microphone has a huge influence on sound quality. The best place to clip a lavalier mic depends on a number of variables but, in general, the center of the chest—roughly three to eight inches below the chin—is usually the preferred area. You might see lavalier mics positioned differently on TV, but using such a microphone on a stage with a public address system and a moving presenter can be a different matter. Testing your microphone with a sound check in the area where you will be speaking helps determine the best mic position for your voice and the situation.

Also consider the “fashion factor.” Never let clothing or accessories cover or brush against a lavalier mic, as this can mask the sound and create noise. Loose necklaces or other jewelry can bang against the mic or make rattling or jangling sounds that will be amplified. And when using a lavalier, plan to wear clothing that allows you to easily and firmly clip the mic to the correct area of your body.

An excellent hands-free alternative to the lavalier is the headset or “earset” type of microphone often seen in TED Talks and other high-profile settings. This type of microphone is positioned on the cheek or next to the mouth. It can pick up the voice more effectively because it is much closer to the mouth and it always maintains that exact distance, regardless of which way the speaker’s head is turned. Unfortunately, such mics are not available in many nonprofessional or average speaking environments.

Hand-Held Microphones
Except for the fact that it will occupy one of your hands, a hand-held microphone is usually a good choice for most speakers and will often provide the best sound quality. These microphones are normally capable of amplifying even very soft voices with less risk of feedback than lavaliers—mainly because they can be held very close to the mouth. If you have a loud voice and/or if the volume of the sound system is too high and cannot be adjusted, you can usually compensate by simply holding the mic farther away.

The best distance at which to hold a microphone depends on a number of factors, but most work well when held somewhere in the range of one to four inches from the mouth (farther away when yelling). If there is too much bass (when your voice sounds too deep, muddy or boomy), you can usually minimize this effect by increasing your distance from the mic—but you may have to speak louder. If you hear popping or wind-like sounds when you speak, try keeping the top of the vertically held mic beneath your lower lip, allowing your breath to travel over and above the top of the mic at a right angle rather than directly into it.

Lectern Microphones
You will usually find one of two common types of microphones attached to a lectern. The first type is a long, slender, black mic with a slender, black, metal or foam top (often seen on televised awards shows and at high-level corporate events). The other type has a thicker, bulkier design (often a hand-held mic mounted to the lectern) with a larger, metal ball/screen or foam top.

The more slender type is generally not used as close to the mouth as a hand-held mic and often distorts or “pops” when a speaker is too close. The optimal distance depends on the speaker and the situation but approximately six to twelve inches is normally an acceptable range.

The bulkier type of mic is usually attached to a heavier type of moveable arm. It is often better to speak closer to this type of mic. Before your speech, check the mic position for sound quality and practicality. Make sure that it does not interfere with the reading of your notes or the audience’s ability to see your face.

When using either type of microphone, try to remain in the same general location at the lectern while speaking, unless you’re in a small room where minimal amplification is needed and your voice is not being recorded or broadcast. Be careful not to wander away from the mic or turn too far to one side or the other, especially when using a more closely positioned mic.

Enhance Your Presentations
Even if none of your presentations or events involve huge budgets, high-profile audiences or the world’s finest equipment, you should still make every effort to maximize audio quality and minimize the risk of sound problems. Awful audio and malfunctioning microphones frustrate the audience and make bad impressions; but clear, intelligible speech amplification and high-fidelity music and effects can contribute immeasurably to the overall impact of a presentation or event.

Just like the eloquent, passionate delivery of a well-crafted speech, or the high-quality projection of visually dynamic graphics, the amplification of sound should always enhance—not undermine— your professional image and the quality and impact of your work.

A version of this article appeared in the July 2015 issue of the Toastmaster magazine.

About the Author

Brian Young

is an audio engineer, event producer and member of HDR Lawrenceville Toastmasters in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. He is the founder of “Sonic Survival for Speakers,” an instructional program and help desk that provides microphone/audio advice to public speakers, meeting planners and organizations. For more information, visit