How to use a microphone r̶a̶t̶i̶o̶n̶a̶l̶l̶y̶ during public speaking

by ChristianKl1 min read14th Sep 201814 comments



Microphones are common technology and yet few people understand how they work. For our purposes here, there are unidirectional microphones and omnidirectional microphones.

A unidirectional microphone only records the sound from one direction. If it's pointed at the mouth of the speaker it won't record noise from the audience which makes the resulting recording better.

If it's however pointed at the ceiling while it's in front of the mouth of the speaker it will do a poor job at recording the speaker. 

This leads to the first rule of microphone usage:
Hold the microphone pointing towards your mouth.

Microphones react to sound waves and sound waves are movement of air. If you exhale into a microphone, the microphone will record the exhale. Given Newtons laws, the exhale isn't omnidirectional either but the air that comes out of your mouth from the exhale has a clear direction. If you hold the microphone in front of your mouth, it will get hit by the air. 

Our second rule of microphone usage is:

Keep the microphone to the right side of your mouth if you hold it in your right hand and correspondingly on the left side of your mouth if you hold it with your left hand.

Let combine the two rules into rule zero:

Hold the microphone to the side of your mouth in a way that points towards your mouth.

14 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:18 PM
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Putting the word "rational" in front of everything annoys some people. As I wrote in Rationality Cardinality: The rational writing strategy is to put the word "optimal" in front of everything instead.

Is 'rationally' in the title doing something that 'skillfully' wouldn't?

Also came here to recommend the practice of firewalling the optimal from the rational ;)

(And thanks for the post - it turns out I was using a microphone sub-optimally earlier this week!)

I have chosen the word more as a pun. This isn't so much a post that I wanted to write, but one I felt I needed to write after seeing a lot of people botcher up their microphone usage at the community weekend.

But as far as words go, rationally is more fitting than skillfully.

I don't have a problem with people not having spent the time to practice speaking with a microphone to do skill building when being at an event like the community weekend. On the other hand, it annoys me when people don't understand the basic concepts of the technology.

To be really frank, and really succinct:

Abuse of the word 'rational' was one of the original social stressors that killed LessWrong.

It is not more fitting, and you should actually go back and edit your post to change it.

What do you think "rational" means when you thing "skillfully" would be more fitting?

FYI, you're probably getting more pushback here because you're wearing your rationalist's shoes.

I'm not surprised about getting pushback and the fact that choosing the title this way will have a certain emotional impact.

At the same time, the word skillfully wouldn't do the job of describing the article better. If you have a problem with the word rational getting overloaded, overloading skillfully wouldn't be better. I also don't think "optimal" would do the job better either.

  • “How to correctly use a microphone during public speaking”
  • “How to use a microphone during public speaking”
  • “How to hold a microphone when speaking in public”
  • “How to use a microphone and not look like a total noob while doing it”
  • “Everything you ever needed to know about using a microphone while speaking in public, but were afraid to ask”
  • etc.

I meant my comment to be more tongue-in-cheek than I think it came across (I meant to edit in a smiley and forgot. :P)

I do think it's good to avoid using the world rational the way it was here, but mostly just thought it was funny. (I do think "How to use a microphone during public speaking" is a totally reasonable title that doesn't require any additional words)

It's also good to just ask if your audience can hear you. Generally audiences will not tell you if you're completely unintelligible due to the Bystander Effect.

Pop-filters are great if you can get them. They help with the issue of plosives blowing up the mike.

BTW, this advice also generalizes to when you want to mike your guitar amp at a gig. You don't want to point the microphone at the floor in front of the amp, or at a bunch of plywood between the two speakers of your cabinet etc.etc.

Most vaguely competent people are capable of figuring this out. But they might not know that to mic an acoustic guitar you want to point the mic at where neck meets the body, or sometimes at the large flat part of the body, not at the sound hole / right hand. If I'm going to not downvote a post on mic advice, I want the latter category of advice, not the former.

I am not sure that this post belongs on Less Wrong (much less the front page), as it seems to be one of the generic “rational self-help” sorts of posts against which we found the need to write polemics once upon a time. A profusion of such posts can easily dilute the signal of the Less Wrong front page, to a disastrous degree.

But, it seems to me to clearly be a useful post, and useful for rationalists in particular.[1] (I, at least, learned something from this post which I didn’t know before!)

I wonder if a compromise might not be possible? Perhaps we might have a section of the site dedicated to collecting such guides and information, and links to similar things elsewhere, but without the aforementioned “clutter” and “signal dilution” problems that come from putting it on the front page with everything else? (I know I’ve said this before, but it bears mentioning: a wiki would seem ideal for such a purpose, especially since it would allow guides/info like this to be perfected and added to, in a crowdsourced, iterative way.)

[1] Insofar as the sorts of people who tend to make up “rationalist” spaces are disproportionately unlikely to be aware of good practices of public speaking.