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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Microphone Manners: Loud & Clear Ways for Pros

As the microphone rests on the stand, waiting for you to grab it, confidence swells because you know the show will be successful.

Or will it be?

Before a single story is shared, the audience is keenly observant to your comfort level with the microphone. The people may not have a pad of paper to dock points on your stage presence yet judgments are made.

Storytellers tend to fall in one of three categories--

1. The “No-Mike-for-Me” Teller
Some storytellers avoid the microphone completely unless begged by the emcee or of the hard-of-hearing in the audience. These tellers strain their voices for 30 minutes or more assuming their vocal chords are powerful enough to reach 25 to 100-plus people. These tellers seem to be shouting their stories rather than telling their stories. Little do these tellers know that projected voices tend to make stories monotone; a whisper is almost shouted and a shout is practically the same volume as the narrator/character’s regular voice.

2. The Eardrum-Buster Teller
Then there are the storytellers who “eat” the microphone. They do not trust the device to pick up sound. The microphone is so close to their lips that unpleasant sounds are picked up such as dry mouth clicks and smacks to the extra “pah” on any words that start with the letter “p”. Audience members may be seen with cringed smiles as they attempt to ignore the technical difficulties.

3. The Smooth and Professional Teller
These are the storytellers who grab the microphone and, as they tell their stories, the microphone seems to disappear from the stage. The words are still being sent across the room so that all in attendance can hear, only there are not any technical distractions to take audience members out of the moment. If there are times of fuzziness or echoes in the sound—known as feedback—then these tellers acknowledge this problem to the audience, pause the story, and then continue the story when fixed. The audience then leaves the auditorium with respect for the teller’s stories and for the teller’s grace.

Obviously, a storyteller wants to be known as smooth and professional. Here are some “loud and clear” tips to achieve this status:

  • Request One or More Sound Checks
  • Discuss and Choose Microphone Options
  • Plan for the Worst and Dream for the Best

Request One or More Sound Checks
In society it is good manners to put out your hand to welcome another person. For microphones, the etiquette is no different. You need to put your hand out to the microphone and see if the two of you will work well as a team on performance day. If you rely on your own sound system rather than others, then this step is done before the purchase of equipment.

Arriving 45 minutes to an hour early to a performance gives time to play around with the sound. If a microphone needs to be exchanged for whatever reason, this may give enough time to make the switch. Ideally, you would have at least two sound checks with the first check a day or more before the performance and second check the day of the performance.

If I will perform at a nearby venue for the first time, I like to meet the sponsor a month or two before the performance day and check out the sound system. I can take notes as to the types of microphones available and determine if feedback will be a problem. For farther venues, I must rely on the sponsor’s opinion of the sound system.

When testing the microphone, some people are tempted to “tap, tap, tap” it. They may have seen other people—even professionals—do this technique but, of all things to do, tapping the microphone is the most damaging to the equipment. As you want to have your microphone in happy order as long as possible, then test the microphone by saying “1-2-3” or—better yet—sharing pieces of your story.

Discover how well the softest and the loudest parts of your story sound when using the microphone. Normally, the microphone is a good six to eight inches away from your mouth. For whispers you may need the microphone brought a couple inches closer while shouts may require to put the mike at arm’s length.

Discuss and Choose Microphone Options
Be aware of how you present a story to the audience when figuring out what type of microphone to use.

Questions on choosing a microphone:

1. Am I a stand-up or a sit-down storyteller? How much do I move my body while standing or sitting?

2. Do I prefer the use of two hands or could I still effectively tell the story with one hand?

3. Are there any other options of microphones in the first place?

Corded or Non-Corded Microphone with a Stand
This microphone could work for both the storyteller who plans to stay in one spot of the stage or for the storyteller who wants to move around.

Whether staying still or moving about, the best stand is the one that has two beams—the first is vertical from the stage while the second can be adjusted to dramatic angles. Make sure this second beam is always pointing up. The same rule applies to the microphone itself. Always aim the microphone up. For shorter people or sit-down tellers, sometimes the second beam and/or the microphone are mistakenly angled toward the floor. This gives a psychological feeling that the microphone is in control rather than the teller. The downward angle also upsets the acoustics in the room.

If you plan to stay in one area, then you will not need to hold the microphone so this frees both of your hands despite if you stand or sit.

I usually take the microphone off the stand so I can hold the microphone roughly six to eight inches from my face regardless if I turn my head to the right or to the left. Of course, holding the microphone limits me to one hand in telling the story. If I already know I will have a corded or non-corded mike, then I practice telling the stories with one hand.

For a corded microphone, I quietly unwrap its cord from the stand. I have seen other storytellers unwrap the cord from the stand while jumping into a story. This action is distracting. The audience will not mind waiting some seconds for you to be ready. The pause actually builds excitement and anticipation, which could only improve your reception with the audience.

Since I do not use the stand, the proper thing to do is to place the stand far enough behind me so I have room to move. When my story or program is done, I accept the applause for a moment, turn around, pick up the stand, and return it to its original place. As there may be another performer after me, this is my way of showing respect. Even if I was the sole performer, the emcee may return to the stage and need everything in order.

If body movement is really important to you as a storyteller, then you may prefer the lavaliere. This type clips to your shirt while the battery pack is often clipped to your belt, slacks, or skirt. If there is no where to hook the battery pack, then some storytellers bring a small bag that hangs diagonally from their shoulder. The bag is about the size of a pocket and usually matches the storyteller’s outfit.

Lavalieres are not recommended if you wear a low-cut blouse or shirt as the microphone is best situated close to the bottom of your neck. Some storytellers wear vests, sweaters or even suit coats, and so clip the lavaliere to the side. Later these tellers wonder why the sound system was so bad. Unless you always speak on the sides of your mouth, center the microphone.

Please note that while you have both hands for performing, you must still be aware at your head’s direction in comparison to the microphone. You may need to turn your whole body if you want to face the right or left. If you only turn your head to the right, then your storytelling will suddenly get soft (unless this is your intention). This does not mean you have to dip your chin. If someone is over the amplification system, then that person may be able to adjust the power.

Plan for the Worst and Dream for the Best
You may adjust the microphone perfectly and still there are problems. The batteries could run out or the feedback could be impossible to fix. Bringing extra batteries could fix the first problem, but what of the second?

While telling a story, sometimes it is easier for us to “plow through” when we have technical difficulties. We pretend the problem is not there. We may be able to ignore, but our audience often cannot. Feel free to pause when there is feedback. You may even address from the stage to the sponsor or to the sound tech guys to fix the problem for you. It may be a few minutes before everything is in order, but your audience will thank you.

To prepare yourself for these situations, you could practice your stories and have a friend make “crrrrr” sounds as if a microphone went crazy. Then you can practice pausing and addressing the imaginary sound tech guys.

The night before I tell, I like to visualize the perfect storytelling concert. Part of the dream includes how I handle the microphone with ease.

Perhaps the next time you see a “No-Mike-for-Me” teller or a Eardrum Buster teller, you can shake your head, tap them on the shoulder, and guide them to be smooth and professional--like you.

Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman
Professional Storyteller
Co-Chair of Youth, Educators, and Storytellers Alliance
(801) 870-5799


Sean said...

A real pro has their own sound system that will work in most small to medium settings; has their own personal microphone or two that they bring with them to events just in case the house system is bad; otherwise generally agrees with your article; explores just how far headset mics have come; Nicely done.

Professional Storyteller Rachel Hedman said...

Thanks, Sean!

Headset microphones are exciting though I have found that often only the prestigious venues have these types of sound equipment.

As some storytellers do not consider themselves full-time or even part-time with the art, then often they must rely on the house microphone system.

Yes, the most smooth and professional tellers would have their own sound systems.

By the way, what would you consider "small to medium settings"? Everyone has different definitions.

Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman

Brother Wolf said...

I love this post Rachel

Great point about working out your sound issues and not ignoring what is really going on.