I realise I have a bunch of experience and advice for speakers and potential speakers that I simply haven’t written down or shared. Here’s the first piece on things to consider that you might not have thought about.
Note: as usual, my advice is from the point of view of a woman (me) and is aimed mostly at women, but also as usual it’s probably useful for others to know too.
Today I want to make you aware of the process of having your mic fitted when you’re speaking at a conference. This is something that I no longer give much thought to because it’s just routine, but in retrospect there’s a lot about this one simple process that needs to be shared with speakers and prospective speakers, firstly to set expectations appropriately and secondly because mic fitting has a surprisingly big impact on your choice of clothes.
I’ll tell you why I started thinking about this. First, last year SC London had a woman fit me with a mic for my talk. At that moment I realised I had never been fitted by a woman before, and that actually that was quite shocking. Particularly as I realised that this woman was here specifically just to fit the mics onto women speakers (the technician was a man, as usual) and I really appreciated this touch from the conference organisers to consider the needs of the women speakers.
Secondly, when I saw the episode of Queer Eye where Skyler Jay was explaining how uncomfortable he was being fitted for a suit because another man would be up close and touching his body, it occurred to me this could apply to mic fitting for speakers too.
So let me explain the process, and perhaps give some tips.
Most conferences, particularly if you want to move around the stage, will fit you with a roaming mic of some sort (i.e. you will not be using a stationary mic at a lectern or similar). Usually this mic is made up of the microphone itself (either a lapel mic or a headset with a mic on), a long-ish wire between the mic and the battery pack, and the battery pack / transmitter. The mic needs to be placed on you somewhere near your mouth, the battery pack needs to be put on you somewhere comfortable and inconspicuous, and the wire needs to run between the two as invisibly as possible.
A technician will fit your mic. As I just mentioned, this is almost always a man. Most will ask permission before trying to place any of the equipment on your clothing or person. Some will ask you to do it yourself. Note that I said most will ask permission before touching you or your clothes. Some do not. I personally never saw it as a problem because a) I expect the mic-fitting process and probably have simply offered my body to be fitted and b) I have always felt like the technician saw me as just another piece of equipment to set up and adjusted before the presentation. I’ve never felt like the technician took an unhealthy interest in being that close to a person’s body, if anything they’re uncomfortable doing this with a woman. But I realise that for some people this process could be more intimate than they might like, particularly as attaching something to your waistband actually requires the person attaching it to have fingers rather closer to one’s underwear than one would normally allow (note: most technicians prefer to put the mic in a pocket than mess around with your waistband).
My advice would be: take ownership of this process if you feel at all uncomfortable (or worry that you might become uncomfortable). When the technician introduces themselves (and they always do) you can state up front that you want to fit everything yourself, or ask what needs to be fitted and where, and be clear about what you are or are not comfortable with the technician doing. I’ve given dozens of talks, maybe as many as one hundred, and I can’t think of a time when an approach like that would have been rejected by the professionals involved. Also, I expect many conference organisers would be very accommodating if you asked them in advance what their arrangements were for microphone and mic fitting to prepare them and yourself.
I’m going to go into the microphone set up / fitting in a bit more detail because I’ve found that having to wear a roaming mic actually impacts quite a lot of what you might choose to wear and how you might choose to style your hair. I realise how “girly” that sounds but that’s just the reality of the situation.
Example lapel microphone, clipped on to the neck of the top, from ProgNet London Keynote. Note the wire goes from the mic down inside the t-shirt
Back to the setup: Often the wire between mic and pack needs to go inside your t-shirt / top so it can’t be seen. Technicians will ask you to do this yourself and tell you the easiest way to do it (note: while I’ve found that I can usually just pull my t-shirt away from my skin and drop the wire down, sometimes there’re some adjustments which mean some skin might be on display - remember this is usually on stage, some time before the talk, and the audience might be there. I’ve found longer, looser tops are the best for concealing everything. I expect you could probably ask to do this in a private space, or alternatively just wear a visible wire outside your clothes). For a recent keynote, my male colleagues and I were wearing jackets/blazers, so they just hid the wire under the jacket. I don’t like wearing a layer on top of my t-shirt when I present, as I can find it hot, uncomfortable and restricting. But it is a good way to hide things, including sweat patches!!
Example headset microphone, from DevoxxUK 2017. Note also I am wearing a dress. I probably hid the pack on the back of the neck.
If the mic is a headset, you will have some sort of headpiece on your, er, head. It’s usually a thin flexible wire that runs along the back of your head from ear to ear. If you have long hair, you’ll have to lift your hair for the technician to fit it. If you’ve got your hair in some sort of updo, this might interfere with the way the mic sits. I’ve presented with ponytails, French plaits, and braids and buns, I generally haven’t discovered much of a problem in terms of how the mic sits or how comfortable it is, but often removing it will pull a bunch of hair out of whatever updo you have.
Headset mic can be worn with a complicated updo, from Devoxx Belgium Closing Keynote, 2016
Lapel mics pose other issues. As mentioned, usually a wire needs to run from your neck to your waist, usually inside your top. The lapel mic needs to be fitted to, erm, your lapel. This usually means attaching it to the neck of your t-shirt like in the first picture above, but if you’re wearing a v-neck or more unconventional neckline, it can sometimes be hard to get the mic in the right place. If it’s positioned too far to one side (left or right) you’ll end up with the sound getting too loud or too quiet as you move you head. In my experience technicians can usually find a way to make it work, but it is something to be aware of when selecting which top you’re going to wear.
Lapel microphone clipped to the t-shirt material (note how the top now bunches up), the neckline was too high to attach the mic to the neck
Speaking of tops… I have found it easier to wear a top and skirt or top and trousers/jeans, because as I mentioned above, you generally need a waistband to clip the microphone pack to or have pockets to put it into. If you wear a dress, there’s nowhere to attach it to. I have presented with the pack clipped to the neck of the dress at the back, which isn’t super practical, or with the pack dangling at my back attached to my neck by a lanyard. It was only slightly choking me….
Some roaming mics are not very roamy. They’re actually cabled with a great big long cable which follows you around. I’ve only been forced to use this set up a couple of times but it does happen. Needless to say, not only do you feel somewhat tethered to the stage, it also poses a massive trip hazard, one that’s particularly worrying if you’re wearing heels.
One last word on mics. I gave up on dangly earrings years ago because I just could not be bothered to change my earrings every day. However my sister bought me awesome dinosaur earrings for Christmas and I just had to wear them for the presentation I just gave yesterday. As soon as the technician came to fit my mic, he asked me to take them off, because they were going to clang against the mic headset and make a bit fat clattering noise every time I moved my head. So sadly I had to remove them and wear my classic BCRs. This is not a problem with lapel mics, but be aware that if you have a headset mic you may need to remove your earrings.
So, in summary:
- When speaking at a conference you may be fitted with a roaming mic
- These are usually fitted by male technicians, and may involve running a wire down the inside of your t-shirt, and usually requires you to clip a pack onto your waistband or put it into a pocket
- Lapel mics need to be attached somewhere, usually the neck of your top or t-shirt. Low cut or v neck tops may be more difficult to attach to
- Headset mics may be more difficult to wear with certain hairstyles
- You may be asked to remove dangly earrings to avoid unwanted noises into the mic
- You should be able to set your own boundaries to suit your comfort level. And, of course, you can always opt to use a stationary / lectern mic which avoids a lot of these issues.
I hope this was helpful. I would also love others to share their mic tips in the comments.