Monday, August 11, 2014

Acoustics and Lack of a Microphone



The speaker who does a lot of presentations across a wide range of audiences will, at some stage or another, find himself unexpectedly having to present to an audience without a microphone. Today, the use of the microphone is commonplace and I've already written about microphones as a subject. But what we need to know is what to do when that instrument is not provided? - or what to do if it fails and cannot be fixed. The answer to these two questions depends entirely on the circumstances. I will describe a few of them below.

There are times when no matter how much the program organizer pleads, if you are sensible - remembering that your voice is your most important 'tool of trade,' you should refuse to go on. Such a situation happens but rarely. I've grumbled at lot, but refused only once, and at that time, after a lengthy delay - which had lots of people embarrassed - a workable microphone did eventually arrive. Quite likely somebody had to drive somewhere to obtain it. It seemed to take that long.

I had no option. It was a big meeting in a big hall and in another hall right behind it there was a very rowdy children's Christmas party going on!

Okay, that rarity out of the way, what other time is it advisable to refuse to present without a microphone? In a word, 'Outside.' I'm talking about outside in the open air to a large audience. When you're outside in a park, for example, and you're asked to speak to a lot of people for a long time, just don't do it. Chances are you'll give your voice a terrible beating. It could be hoarse and sore for days. Yes, even if you're very experienced and have mastered voice projection. You see, without something to rebound against, your voice will be projecting mainly into thin air.

A lot will be lost to the sky. You message will attenuate in proportion to distance and, with no reflective surfaces, it is likely that only those within forty or fifty feet of you will hear you clearly enough to know what you're saying. And, you need to remember that sounds are coming in towards you from 'the world out there' which those listeners also have to contend with.

Yes, I have tried speaking in the so-called, soapbox, situation with people passing by along public pathways through an inner city park. Some did stop for a while; many just cocked a hand to an ear and kept walking. Others simply walked by as if I wasn't there. You might infer from this that my speech was no good or badly delivered. Not, so, it was the same presentation that many an audience has lauded to high heaven "as one of the best I've ever heard." It wasn't the content. It was the environment. So don't speak outside without a microphone. Unless, of course...

The Ancient Greeks and Romans had the right idea. Three thousand years before the advent of microphones they had invented, developed and built the amphitheater. Oval or circular or half-circles on stone steps, each flint-hard seat rising above the other, the speaker standing at the bottom and centre of this circle, his voice projecting and being reflected from a wall of hard rock all round. These were outdoor auditoriums built for naked voice projection.

There are modern amphitheaters, of course. Usually sound systems are provided in such, but if they're not working or not available - provided the area is not too large - the 'naked voice' will do the job. But in most instances as a speaker without a microphone, you'll not be in an amphitheater. They're not that common. So here are a few generalities about most venues, their advantages and shortcomings.

Room size. First thing to consider: the size of the room. Bigger the room the more you'll need the ability to project powerfully. Where you stand in relation to the audience needs to be considered here. In a rectangular room it is sometimes advisable to stand with your back towards one of the longer walls. This could well put you closer to the audience overall. The more equidistant you are to each listener the better. Usually, though, you have no option, the chairs and podium area have already been set up. 

Shape of the room is important. Most rooms are square or rectangular but not all.

Ceiling height. The higher the ceiling, the more easily the sound is lost to the audience below. Also be aware of speaking beneath a dome. I've been trapped that way. You can hear the reverberation or echo of your own voice coming back to you - very disconcerting. Never stand with a small-domed ceiling directly overhead whilst speaking into the rest of the room.

Surfaces. You've probably been to one of those restaurants where you can barely hear the voice of a friend sitting beside you, let alone someone on the other side of the table because, in this crowded environment, there was simply too much noise.Stone or marble floor, tiled walls, solid concrete pillars and such. Every surface reflecting ever tiny bit of sound; not only voices, but clangs and bangs from the kitchen, the open doorways or windows letting in traffic sounds etcetera - bedlam! The deduction: hard surfaces reflect; soft ones absorb. You need always to keep this in mind.

Hard or soft surfaces do not only include walls, floors and ceilings. Everything from the type of furnishings, curtains, paneling, types of seat - bare metal or upholstered and padded - numbers of people in the audience. The more people there are the more your voice will be absorbed by their physical presence.

Huge audience. Of course, if the audience is massive, two, three, five hundred people - forget about speaking without a microphone. Just apologize to the speaker adviser and wait for them to solve the problem. If they can't, then it's up to them to do the apologizing to that great crowd. And once thing you can almost be sure of. He or she will ensure that it never again happens to them.

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