Wednesday 15 February 2023

Tech Check Tips For Public Speakers, MCs, Comics, and Funeral Eulogizers

Learn why sound and lighting technicians are your BFFs.

Written by Robyn T. Braley


If you are a public speaker, comic, do M.C. work, teach, give reports, eulogies at funerals, or toasts at weddings, it's not IF technology will let you down; it's WHEN! Somedays, technology is not your friend despite your best efforts.


It's better to solve problems before your event than troubleshoot them after your presentation has started in front of a full auditorium. 

My Story

I have spent a lifetime working with or around performance technology. I have been a speaker, concert artist, recording artist, Drama Teacher, Gospel Concert Promotor and Event Planner. I have stories and will share a few of them in this post.


Plan Ahead

Information about the room you will be speaking in and the available technology will help you prepare. Call the tech manager or event host before your event. 

Click to check out the first post in this series


A.V. is the common term for sound, lighting and other tech equipment. A.V. means audio-visual tools. While it's somewhat dated, you will never be wrong if you use this all-inclusive term when speaking with the tech team.


Soon after an appearance contract is signed, professional speakers provide organizers with a list of technical requirements. The list might specify … 


  • Microphone preference
  • Audio monitor 
  • Visual monitor 
  • Lighting 
  • Stage setup
  • PowerPoint or Video needs
  • Other needs


Room Configuration

A long narrow room with rows of seating extending to the back requires slightly different performance strategies than a room with semi-circle or banquet seating.  


Semi-circle or horseshoe seating usually means the audience will be closer depending on the venue size. The seating will extend to the immediate left and right of the stage. Some stages may extend into the open area of the horseshoe with some crowd seated slightly behind your left and right.


Whether a big auditorium or conference room,
tech check principles are the same.

A variation is raked seating that slants from the back down to the front. The shape has implications on how you connect with the audience. You must work hard to engage those at the back. Balconies add another dimension. 


My wife and I were Gospel musicians scheduled to appear in an old community centre. As we began to set up our sound system we discovered the stage was slanted towards the audience. That was weird. 


Tutorials and Banquets

If your talk requires note-taking, tables will usually be lined up horizontally from front to back. However, for smaller groups, the tables may be arranged in a U-Shape, which allows the presenter to move into the "U" providing greater intimacy with the audience.  


Banquet tables are either rectangular or round tables. If the event is sold out, some people will be seated at an angle or even have their backs toward you. Before you speak, invite them to turn their chairs towards the stage. 


Just Feel it Baby

The sound characteristics of every room are different due to the size, shape, and materials used to construct the walls and ceiling. Walk around the space and repeat a nursery rhyme or count to ten to get a sense of the acoustics. Clapping your hands and speaking at different volumes gives a sense of the ambiance in the room.


Newly built conference rooms have advanced acoustic material on the walls. With carpet on the floor, the rooms sound dead. However, the quality of the sound from the audio system is greatly enhanced.

  • Eliminates reflection
  • Eliminates deflection
  • Eliminates random waves

Clothing also absorbs sound. The audio will sound slightly different in a full house than in an empty room. 


Own the Room

Several years ago, I attended a conference featuring well-known speakers. An overflow crowd of about 600 people filled the room. 


The buzz of anticipation was energizing. People were excited. 


David Chilton, the author of the bestselling Wealth Barber series of self-help books about saving and investing money, was a keynote speaker. I carefully chose my favourite seat at the end of a row about five rows from the back. 


About 10 minutes before start time, I heard rustling beside me as someone brushed past a gentleman leaning against the wall. 


I looked up, and there he was. David was leaning against the wall, getting a feel for the room. He was preparing mentally and feeding off the energy that was building from the gathering crowd. 


See it as the Crowd Will See It 

See the stage the way the audience will see it. Are there distractions that can be moved?


From certain angles, an eight-foot cactus at the back of the stage may create the illusion that you have big green ears. Eliminate any gaps between background curtains.


If you're in a boardroom, notes about impending layoffs on the whiteboard will be distracting – particularly if members of the group are listed. 


Avoid the Trip 

In branding, we say first impressions are everything! Mics squealing or not working at all or the slide show clicker not connecting with your laptop make a negative statement. Likewise, tripping on a mic cord as you take the stage to a rousing introduction will dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd. 


But it's more than that. A rough start will undermine your confidence and the audience's anticipation of a quality presentation. 


Tech Crew – BFF's 

Whether volunteer operators with a community organization or paid professionals at a conference, the tech team is always your new BFFs – Best Friends forever. 


Treat them well. Why? It's simple. Most are serious about what they do and want things to work smoothly. 


Learn their name. When you show respect, they work harder, knowing you consider them part of your team. 


Hiring a sound tech saved our bacon at this political leaders' debate.

If there's a tech problem, never address the operator from the stage with 'a tone' to your voice. You'll embarrass them and alienate the crowd. 


If there's feedback or other problem, work it out together. Become part of the solution. 


Think of it this way. At a conference, techies may be responsible for up to three rooms. Each may have four presentations daily. As a tech, that is exhausting work requiring focus and attention to detail to ensure the technology works for each speaker. 


You will stand out from other speakers if you let them know how important they are. They will reciprocate accordingly. 


Mic Check 

There are a variety of microphone types. Some are meant to be held about 10" away from your mouth. With area coverage mics, stand 2' to 3' away from it. 


  • Podium – Attached to a gooseneck permanently attached to the podium
  • Handheld – A mic meant for roaming.
  • Lavaliere – A tiny mic attached to a shirt or suit jacket lapel. 


The business end of a mic is the diaphragm or membrane, which is like a human eardrum. Sound enters the microphone causing the diaphragm to vibrate. The vibration translates into an electric signal that's sent to the amplifier. Mic parts


Do not ever start your presentation by speaking into the mic and thumping it while asking, 


"Is this on? Hello! Can you hear me?" 


Also, don't flip the mic around looking for an on-off switch. It makes you look like an amateur. 


A mic check will make sure everything's working as it should. You will also get a sense of how to work with the mic. 


I recently attended an event in a room seating about 200 people. It had an excellent sound system operated by an experienced soundman. 


The MC took the handheld mic from its stand to open the meeting. So far, so good. 


That was when things began to slip. The gentleman had not arrived early enough to do a proper sound check and had no idea how the sound filled the room. As a result, he repeatedly asked if the mic was on and whether the sound could be louder. 


In the end, he resorted to holding the mic so close to his mouth that it distorted. Until he did that, the sound level in the room was satisfactory. He just couldn't hear it from the stage. 


Mics on Podiums 

Before your presentation, determine whether the microphone is permanently attached to a podium. A spontaneous urge to free the mic so you can roam during your talk will be embarrassing when you discover it is permanently attached. 


L- Sure SM58 and Sure Cordless mics. R - typical podium mic

Don't drape yourself over the podium to swallow the mic. I recently MCed an event where the speaker did just that against my advice. The mic was an area mic meant to pick up a speaker standing 3-4 ft. away. 


He looked sloppy in trying to look casual. But, unfortunately, the mic distortion, pops and crackles undermined his fascinating talk.


Handheld Mics 

Hold handheld mics about 10 inches away from your mouth. A recording studio trick is to extend your thumb and little finger horizontally. Then, place your hand between the mic and your mouth to find the best placement.  


When mic checking with the sound person, count to 10, repeat colours, or recite a nursery rhyme as you move closer or farther away from the mic. That is how to find a sweet spot where it sounds best. 


Keep talking until the sound technician finishes adjusting the controls. They will love you for doing it. 

If You Go A'Roamin'  

If you wish to use a handheld or lavalier mic, inform the producer days before the event. 


I emphasize my content with hand gestures and body positioning. I also move about the stage. A handheld or a lavalier is my mic of choice. I'm in my happiest place when either mic is wireless. Click for deeper discussion about mics. 


During sound check, I usually walk down into the seating area of the empty hall as I talk into the mic to get a sense of what the audience will hear. 

Beware the Wireless

Wireless mics are wonderful. A handheld mic transmits directly to a receiver connected to the audio control board or wall panel. 


Lavaliere mic and transmitter. 

A lavaliere is attached to your shirt collar or jacket lapel with an alligator clip. A wire runs under your clothing to a transmitter fastened to your belt in the back. 


You must reach back and turn on the transmitter as you are introduced to speak. You often see T.V. reporters talking without sound until they reach back and turn on the mic. 


Then, there's the other problem. Remember to turn off your mic after your event. You don't want private comments shared over the sound system. 


Worse, you want to avoid heading to the washroom with a live mic! I have stories. Enough said! 

Always Dependable 

Most often, you will use whatever mic is provided. However, if you're asked for a preference, ask for a Sure SM58. They've been around for decades and will never let you down. They are known for their quality, durability, and performance.  


Some of you know Dino, the Grammy Award winning Gospel Pianist. I MCed a concert in Calgary's Jack Singer concert hall, which seats 2,200. It was packed with some fans even sitting in the choir seats above the back of the stage.


I walked out to start the second half. As I pulled the SM58 mic from the stand, the cord came out and went clattering to the floor. There was a spontaneous gasp from the crowd. 


I calmly reached down, reattached it, and made a joke. The crowd erupted and clapped in approval! In the end, the SM58 was fine. It was the cord that was the problem.  


To Podium or Not to Podium 

When you use a podium, there is a physical barrier between you and the audience. Today's audience wants performers to be …

  • Authentic
  • Transparent 
  • Relevant

If you don't need one, ask for it to be moved to one side or even right off the stage. That way, it will not be distracting for you or the audience.


There is a hybrid option for many situations. For example, if I'm giving a short report from a podium, I place my notes on it. I take the mic out of its holder so I can step from behind it when I'm confident about my content. I step back to the podium if I need to refer to my notes. 

Speakers at a Rotary Club demonstrate the pros and cons of podiums.


PowerPoint and Video

Most video projectors are set up for wide-format slides. Using the old square format makes you look dated. However, changing the format and adjusting your text and pictures is easy. 


I prefer to use my laptop because it has a large screen I can use as a monitor. I use my slides to create surprises, visual punchlines to jokes, and emphasize important points. Timing is everything.


If you roam, or even if you don't, the clicker sometimes fails to connect with the receiving antenna. That's frustrating. 


Buy a six to ten ft. USB cord with a male output on one end and a female receptor on the other. Plug your antenna into the female end and the other into your laptop. 


Tape the receiver end of the cord to a chair, the wall or other place that provides a direct line between your clicker and the antenna.


Are You Kidding? 

Sometimes more than preparation is needed. Gerry was my best friend. One day he started a conversation with, "I just got some bad news from my Doctor. I'd like you to produce my funeral." 


How do you respond to that? I said, "Of course, I will!" 


When he passed a few months later, I was consumed by details in the days leading up to his Life Celebration. The service was full of spoken tributes and artists performing music that had to be co-ordinated. 


Gerry was much loved as a business leader and community advocate. The church was packed.


The next day I was scheduled to deliver a keynote address at a conference in Medicine Hat, a city about a 2 ½ hour drive from my city. Unfortunately, because of the memorial, I wasn't prepared. 


I worked until 3:00 am finishing my slide show. After 3 hours of sleep, my wife and I left at 6:00 am to be at the hotel for my scheduled talk at 9:00 am. My wife drove to while I slept. 


To my horror, I went to the assigned room and discovered that the event organizers had failed to book a video projector. My slides supported what I wanted to say and provided my talking cues.


All I could do was wing it. But, remarkably, it turned out well. 


Video Comfort Monitors 

A comfort monitor is a large flat screen placed on the floor in front of you. It is usually tilted back, allowing you to see your slides. I find them so valuable that I often take a 15-year-old RCA TV screen when speaking to a community organization. 


Audio Comfort Monitors

Many venues have audio monitors that sit on the stage pointed back at you. I love them. They allow you to assess your energy level and vocal delivery. Work out the volume levels during the sound check.


Audio monitors are necessary if you are speaking in a large concert auditorium. There is a millisecond delay from when you talk to when you hear the sound returning from the auditorium speakers, particularly if they are located near the ceiling. 


The resulting echo is confusing. Monitors override the delay. 


Stage Lighting - Large Venues

It is common for all sizes of venues to have built-in stage lighting. Lighting creates a warm, welcoming environment and sets the mood. 


Proper lighting helps the audience stay focused on what the speaker is saying. It should not be harsh and overpowering but create a warm and inviting sense of intimacy. 


Lighting also helps audience members feel like the speaker is talking directly to them. 


Anything too bright or too dark, or with hard lines between pools of light, can create anxiety which is not the mood you're trying to create. 


If you roam, know which areas of the stage have been lit. Never walk into the shadows. I've seen it happen. 


Finally, never walk out on stage and complain that the lights are too bright. Never shield your eyes, complaining that you can't see the audience. 


If needed, from the stage, ask the operator to bring up the house lights. Make a joke or a friendly comment as you solve the problem together. 


Stage Lighting - Small Rooms 

Be sure people can see your slides if you speak in a smaller room that has standard lights. Before your event starts, ask someone to be prepared to dim the row of ceiling lights at the front. 


It is disconcerting to have five people get up and fumble with the light switches until they find the right one. 


Find a space to speak from that is not in the shadows but still allows the audience to see the screen. 



Have you had a tech disaster when you were speaking? Were you the techie or the performer? We want to hear from you! 

Robyn T. Braley is a brand specialist, writer, and speaker. He is also a media commentator and Rotarian. Robyn is the President of UniMark Creative which does website design, video production, media services (editorial and advertising), and graphic design. He speaks at business conferences and also blogs about branding. 

Contact Robyn

Follow on Twitter: @RobynTBraley

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