Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith

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Working Around Microphones

Recently I came across a couple of discussions about technology, public speaking, and accessibility. One of them is in [community profile] access_fandom and links to the other which is a Unitarian-Universalist post. The crux of the matter is that people with hearing impairment often need amplification in order to hear, but not everyone is willing or able to use a microphone. And those groups don't always know about each other's concerns, which causes friction.


Here's the core argument from the perspective of the hearing-impaired author:

"When a mic is being used at a meeting and someone looks at it and says, ‘Do we really need this?’ I feel outright anger. That person just asked if people like me really exist and demanded that we defend ourselves."

There's also this gem, which does exactly the same thing in reverse:

"My discomfort in hearing my own amplified voice is more important than your need to be included."

Flip that and you get: "My desire for you to use a microphone so I can hear is more important than your need not to be in pain." Not exactly what I'd call inclusive, and yes, there are plenty of people for whom microphones hurt, and they are routinely ignored. Autistic people live in a toxic cloud of "Hurt yourself or don't come out in public." :/

"Universal access" isn't, because people can have conflicting needs. One of my rules of thumb is that the speaker gets to adjust things for their own comfort, because if they can't work, then nobody is getting a show. But if you want to maximize inclusivity, then it it helps to have more than one tool in the box.

So then I raised these points:

Sometimes it's that lack of awareness or consideration for other people's limitations.  This can be addressed by raising awareness and setting an expectation of courtesy.

Other times it's an oblique way of saying, "I don't know how to use this device," which is true for a lot of less-advantaged people. This can be addressed by having someone demonstrate how it works, a good idea anyway since different devices may have very different controls or requirements.

For some it's, "I can't stand the sound of that thing so close to me." This happens with people who have sensitive hearing or sensory issues, and is difficult or impossible to fix because it's often a field effect due to the equipment's sphere of influence covering the room. But sometimes it has a shorter range and this is worth checking.  Once in a while, the speaker's range of discomfort is shorter than the mike's pickup range, so just scoot it away a few inches and go on with the show.

It can also mean, "If I use that electronic device, it is likely to cease functioning." There is usually zero sympathy for that, people are unwilling to assist in compensating for it, and thus the result is often that the device breaks and now nobody has a damn mike unless a replacement is available for the subsequent speaker. And the current speaker has no mike just like they told you was going to happen.

And you're unlikely to know which of those factors is in play from the audience.

These things are often more complicated than they seem at first glance. As a general rule, if someone says there's a problem, treat that as true even if you don't understand why. There are likely to be variables in play they know about that you don't, and they may not wish to discuss those openly.

As a first step, if a mike is present and there are no barriers to using it, then use it.  This maximizes accessibility.  You may need to tweak things if it is turned too low or too high.  Audience feedback is therefore valuable if available, but not everyone wants to speak up when things go wrong.  Watch the people in the back.  If they are cupping their hands to their ears, tilting their heads, or looking unhappier than the people closer to you then they probably cannot hear you well.  The mike may be too low or not working.  If people anywhere are covering their ears, shaking their heads, or wincing then the mike is probably too high and/or emitting obnoxious sounds.  Adjust and discuss until it is comfortable, or if not, continue to other solutions.

My experience of microphones is varied. Sometimes they're essential, other times not. Often they're more trouble than they're worth. Sometimes you can distinguish which by testing them, other times not. They are frequently unavailable or malfunctioning, so try not to depend on them completely.

Coincidentally, last night I was listening to several speakers. One didn't use a microphone and was perfectly audible. (Small room, maybe two dozen people.) But the ones using the mike had this bizarre, faint echoing whine added that kept making me cringe. I don't know if the thing was misbehaving because I was there, the other folks were also prone to making technology malfunction, or it was just a piece-of-shit device.

It doesn't take many such negative experiences with a mike for people to start asking, "Do we NEED this fool thing, or are we just using it because it's there and a habit?" The Amish have a wonderful rule about not adopting technology if it's more trouble than it's worth, and this is excellent advice even if one draws the line in a different place than they do. Think about what it's for, what good it does, and whether that could be done better in some other way. Remember that a good mike, properly used, increases audibility; but a poor mike, or an ineptly used one, may make the speaker harder to understand.

One technique I've found useful is just asking people. "Can everyone in the back hear me?" "Is this thing too loud for the folks in front?" "Is this even on?" "Does anyone else hear that aggravating whine/rattle/buzz?"

Another is that, if the equipment is malfunctioning or incompatible, change the venue. Ask for a different room or equipment, if available. Switch from talking to text display if people have the resources for that -- that would've actually worked last night, as they were running the slideshow from a laptop. In a small group you can often shuffle the chairs into a better configuration to reduce the need for a mike.  Sometimes you can get different results with a shuffle: "Would the people who can't hear from the back move toward the front, and anyone who doesn't need to be right on top of me move back to make room?" "If anyone tends to fry technology, could you move to the back or step out a minute, and see if this thing will revive if we give it a little breathing room?" A drawback of this approach is that it requires people to out themselves, which not everyone is comfortable with, but it does solve some problems that other methods won't.  But if you've ever seen me sitting panel on the end of the table instead of by the mikes, that's often why.

Bear in mind that socially anxious or touch-averse people often prefer to hang back, and if you pressure them to move closer, it makes them uncomfortable.  There are many reasons why someone might need elbow room, so if you say "move forward" and some stay put, that may be a deliberate choice on their part.  It could also be that they can't hear you.  Beckon people toward the closer seats as well as giving verbal instructions.  You may also ask, "If you can hear me, raise your hand."  For people who can't hear, you can walk over and explain that the mike is dead, or whatever, and invite them to help work out a solution.  But remember, if you tend to fry technology, don't stand too close to someone wearing a hearing aid! Send an audience member instead.

EDIT 9-25-17: [personal profile] lauredhel raised the excellent point that some people (parents with babies, people with fatigue, anyone on call, etc.) may not want to move forward because they need the ability to leave quickly.  If this is a concern, there are at least two possible workarounds.  First, check the room for frontal exits; many event rooms have multiple doors.  Second, seat them on the aisles, preferably outer, but inner will do.  In this manner, they can leave unobtrusively if necessary.  When seating people, it helps to remind folks that special needs have priority on seats with functional advantages, and it's polite to leave those for other attendees if you don't need  them. 

For babies in particular, ask if the venue has a cry room.  Those used to be more common, but some venues have a place where parents of fussy children can observe the event.  Cry rooms are also helpful for a variety of disabilities including autism, Tourette's syndrome, PTSD, social anxiety, etc.  In theaters, they're often a loft or balcony and may double as ADA space. One of our local theaters has ADA balconies, and they'd work just as well for most of those other conditions as for wheelchairs.

If you are an event organizer, you can prevent some of these challenges by asking in your registration/volunteer forms:
* Do you know how to use a microphone?  Our venue has Brand X Product Y sound equipment.  If you're unfamiliar with that, we are happy to teach you.
* Are you comfortable using a mike?  If you need special accommodations, talk to us and we'll see what we can do.  If you're uncomfortable or incompatible with such equipment, we can book you in a small venue where amplification is less necessary.
* Do you have a disability or other limitation for which accommodation would help?  If so, let us know what you need and we'll be happy to help.  See our list of available accommodations if you need ideas!

It's also a good idea to reserve at least some of the front-row seats in any venue for people with disabilities.  That means not just wheelchair users but also people with impaired hearing or vision for whom that proximity makes a big improvement in their experience.  At a very large event, or one for special needs, consider providing separate accommodations for people who are very sensitive to loud noises than for people who need heavily amplified speech to hear.  Today's sophisticated audiovisual systems may be able to route the input from the main auditorium to a soft room and a boost room for those different needs. Some venues can even broadcast to private hotel rooms, a popular feature for masquerades.

For anyone who does public speaking regularly, it's worthwhile to practice pitching your voice, in case equipment is unavailable or ineffective. We teach this for ritual purposes, but it works just as well in a lecture or whatever. I stand 20-30 feet away, outdoors, and coach until I can hear the speaker clearly. If you can learn that and really want to push your limits, ask a hard-of-hearing friend to provide feedback. There are official voice coaches who teach pitching and enunciation and so forth, which used to be common for public speaking clubs and such, but it seems to have dwindled down to acting classes now. The results are kind of hard to describe, as it's not only raising your voice but changing the quality so it carries better. One time I was at a con where George Takei was speaking, in a largish room without a mike. His voice went within a fraction of an inch of the wall, and didn't pile up next to it like what usually happens when people speak to carry. Crystal clear through the whole room. I have no idea how he did it but I remain in awe. I doubt I did anywhere near that well in my following panel, but then I didn't have people six-deep along the back wall, so it went okay.

EDIT 9-23-17: [personal profile] technoshaman mentioned heralds.  The Society for Creative Anachronism has people whose job is to shout announcements in venues where electronic support is rarely available and is undesirable.  So if you want to learn how to make yourself heard, look them up.  This page offers links to vocal techniques for making yourself heard.  They work!

EDIT: 9-24-17: [personal profile] siliconshaman shares this idea:

"I'm reminded of the Occupy Movement's use of echoing or vox populis, or people's mike. Where a group at the front, who could hear, would echo in unison what the speaker was saying. Thus making it loud enough to be heard at the back.

It's a little clumsy, as the speaker has to pause to allow the repetition, but it's quite a powerful technique. For whatever reason, it makes more of a psychological impact. The pauses also allow the speaker to consider their words, and that makes for better presentation or wording."

I'm less sure of workarounds for folks who find mikes aggravating, but I have some ideas. Based on personal experience and observation, things sitting nearby are less troublesome than things hanging on one's person. Also close contact greatly increases the chance of technical failure. For anyone who codeswitches between sign language and spoken English, anything with an attached wire -- clip-on or handheld -- is a disaster waiting to happen. (A sign language interpreter is only useful to people who understand that language, but if you have hearing-impaired audience members, it can be a good idea.) So using floor/table mikes is much safer than the kind meant to attach to a person. There may be other solutions.

EDIT 9-25-17: [personal profile] alatefeline has commented with an extensive list of excellent ideas, so I'm linking it instead of repeating it.

Generally speaking, seek to define a problem as precisely as possible, and respect different needs.  Then ask if people have solutions to the various aspects of it. Once those are found, you can spread them around. I'm starting to see some really good tipsheets on disability etiquette. I've also seen a few lines worth of "What do I do if the mike dies?" advice for panel moderators.

If you find these ideas useful, please copy and share with your company, school, church, club, or other organizations in the interest of improving comfort and communication.

Does anyone else have further ideas for working around the challenges of microphones?
Tags: entertainment, how to, safety
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