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Dave Hill at the 2004 World Championship of Public Speaking

It was February 2001, and I was a contestant in a speech competition. The crowd was larger than I was comfortable with, the room was large, and to add to the stress, I was told that I would need to use the lavaliere (lapel) microphone so my voice would project to the back of the room. My speech was practiced and finely honed. I had entered the competition with the intent to win.

My speech included stories that allowed my speaking character to fully blossom. My stories were told with energy, and my body gestures were animated as I presented my speech with passion. Unfortunately at one part of my speech when I was speaking in a loud animated voice, I stood in front of a very large speaker- and it squealed irritating feedback into the audience ears with the same effect as fingernails screeching on the blackboard. The feedback destroyed the effect of my speech, and I did not win.

If I was doing the same speech today, I would know that I would need to test the microphone before my speech by walking around the stage while simultaneously talking in a loud voice. This test would help me find feedback “hot-spot locations”, which I would then know to avoid.

In the last 10 years, I have entered over 60 speech competitions, and have taken home trophies for most of them. Sometimes I have won because someone with a better speech had microphone problems that could have been avoided. My stories and humor seem to give me an edge, and the microphone helps me project my energy and visualizations to the audience. Microphones are a huge benefit for a speech; however, in the hands of inexperienced speakers, they can destroy the effect of the most polished speech.

The following are some of the tips that I have learned from the school of hard (and very loud) knocks:
1. Microphones are beneficial – they can really enhance your speech or presentation. It takes a bit of practice to get comfortable with them, but it is worth the effort.
2. When using a mike, make sure you know how to turn it off and on and where the “mute” switch is. Practice using a mike as often as possible, and think about how you will manage all parts of your speech with a microphone at the lectern- in your hand, or with a lapel mike. Use a “dummy” microphone to practice if you will be using a hand held one.
3. Microphones do go wrong, they sometimes don’t work, they can give annoying feedback, and they can make you sound as if you have a bucket over your head. Think ahead – if any one of these faults occurs, what will I do? Will I battle on or dump the microphone?
4. Arrive early to do a sound check. You can get someone sitting at the back to help out. Remember to let the microphone do the work, you do not need to shout into it or strain your voice.
5. Do not tap the microphone to check if it is on. Do you really want the audience to be irritated before you speak?.
6. Know where the audio speakers are – if you walk in front of them and speak, you run a high risk of getting loud, nasty feedback. The sound check can help identify bad areas to speak – walk around the speaking area while talking in your loudest voice to identify “feedback hot spots”.
7. When using a lectern microphone, adjust it so that it is an appropriate distance from you for good sound, and that it is not blocking your face.
8. Remember, if you are using a lectern mike, you are stuck there. If you turn away to point to a screen etc, your voice could be lost.
9. Make sure the lectern or mike is in a position such that it is not obstructing the screen, it is not blocking your speaking area, and that it is in a position to minimize feedback.
10. Ladies – and guys wearing kilts – if you will need to use a lavaliere microphone, think about where the transmitter box will be located (in a pocket, on a belt etc.). Also, think about how the lapel mike wire can be hidden in your clothing.
11. If you are going to be moving about energetically, think about how to attach the transmitter firmly (I have seen it dropped many times, and it can ruin a speech with distraction etc.)
12. The lapel microphone needs to be attached firmly to a tie, jacket or other piece of clothing. Do not assume the person attaching it on you is experienced in this; many times they are not. You do not want the mike rubbing against clothing, jewelry or hair. Prior to your speech, discuss with your helper who is going to turn on the transmitter. I prefer to get the helper to turn it on so I can mentally focus and control any anxiety.
13. Over-the-ear type microphones can fall off if not attached correctly. Practice attaching it, and even shake your head to make sure it will not dislodge itself.
14. Practice as much as possible with a microphone, and think about how your gestures could end up rubbing or banging the microphone with distracting noise.
15. When using a microphone, move papers or other materials quietly- the noise is picked up, and is distracting. Use heavier paper such as 32 lb.
16. If there is a break during your presentation, make sure you turn off the microphone before going to the washroom. Imagine the potential embarrassment!

Use the microphone if it is available. Both the speaker and the audience will benefit from its use. Remember – the microphone is your friend. Practice, practice, practice, and use it to your advantage.