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If You Ever Speak in Public, Follow This Advice

Most life advice is terrible. Don’t sweat the small stuff—if I knew which stuff that was, I wouldn’t be sweating so much. Know thyself—thank you, but myself is the main thing I think about already. Live every day as if it were your last—so I guess I should spend every day Googling which coffin best between bouts of weeping?

Any exhortation that gets broadcast to all of humanity will end up seeming meaningless, trite, or wrong. Some people need to sweat the small stuff less, yes. But I’m always forgetting to respond to text messages, or leaving the house with my fly undone, or developing mysterious headaches only to realize I haven’t drunk any water all day. Perhaps I ought to sweat the small stuff more.

I still believe that it’s possible to construct a piece of advice that’s useful to just about anyone, even strangers. But it’s difficult, because that advice has to have three elements that rarely go together: It must be nonobvious, broadly applicable, and harmful to no one.

In fact, I’ve only ever come across one such piece of advice. It goes like this: When speaking into a microphone, hold it about three inches from your mouth.

Or, as my friend Chris Turner, freestyle rapper and stand-up, puts it: “Hold the mic like it’s an ice-cream cone that you’re about to lick. But don’t lick it; they don’t wash those things, and I’ve seen what comedians do with them.”

The few people who speak into microphones for a living, like Chris, already know how to use them, although a reminder won’t hurt. But many others will almost surely need to speak into a mic at some crucial moment in their life: a toast at a family reunion, a presentation at an all-company meeting, a question at a town hall, a eulogy. And when they do, they will almost surely hold the microphone too far away.

I have witnessed the tragic results of improper microphone technique, most often at weddings. I once watched an adorable grandmother deliver a marriage-themed rap, but I couldn’t hear a word of it because she held the mic too far away. A once-in-a-lifetime performance lost forever, all for a few inches! At another wedding, friends lined up at a microphone to deliver heartfelt toasts, but they stood too far away for it to pick up their voices. This caused a bitter divide in the room: People in the back couldn’t hear at all, lost interest, and started chatting among themselves, thus annoying the people in front of them, who turned around and started shouting “Shut up!” I am dismayed to say that even guests at my own wedding, last summer, later told me they couldn’t hear the vows my wife and I had written for each other. We were too distracted by our true and abiding love to remember our most important vow of all: to have and to hold the microphone an appropriate distance from the mouth.

There are several reasons that people consistently make this mistake. Two are psychological, one is bones, and one is Bob Barker.

First, terror. You may have heard that Americans fear public speaking more than they fear death, which is one of those viral facts that isn’t exactly true, but is on the right track. For a 2012 paper titled “Is Public Speaking Really More Feared Than Death?” researchers asked 815 students enrolled in a communications class to review a short list of common dreads––“financial problems,” “loneliness,” “escalators,” etc.—and check off whichever ones frightened them. Sixty-two percent of those students did pick public speaking, compared with just 43 percent who chose death; but when they were asked to name their top-three fears, death was a more popular choice (20 percent, versus 18 percent for public speaking). Suffice to say that plenty of people are afraid of speaking in front of a group, which may be why they’re so inclined to clutch a microphone to their chest like it’s a bouquet of flowers rather than hoisting it to their lips as they should. This, of course, is self-defeating. Nothing makes you look more like a doofus than mumbling miles away from a mic until someone cries out, “Speak up!”

Second, egocentrism. People are likely to think they don’t need to be amplified, because they can hear their own voice perfectly well. Perspective-taking is difficult––how do you know what another person is experiencing? One trick our minds use to solve this problem is to start by assuming that other people’s experiences are just like ours, and then adjust from there. But studies consistently find that we don’t adjust enough, and the further other people’s experiences get from our own, the less accurate we are at understanding them. That’s why the person who ditches the mic with a blasé “Everybody can hear me, right?” is so often wrong.

And third, your own skull. Your voice sounds upsettingly different when you hear it amplified. That’s because you usually hear yourself talking as a mixture of vibrations through the air and vibrations through the bones in your head, and the bone vibrations sound deeper and richer than the air vibrations. When you speak into a microphone, however, you mainly hear the air vibrations that come out of the speakers, which sound thinner and more annoying than you’re used to. (If you want to hear what the bone vibrations sound like, try speaking while plugging your ears.) So people’s immediate reaction upon hearing their amplified voice may well be to think, “Oh God, that sounds bad,” and reflexively move the microphone further away.

The real villain ruining everyone’s weddings, though, is not inside your head. No, it’s Bob Barker, the late host of the game show The Price Is Right, may he rest in peace. For 35 years he was on TV most days holding that damn telescoping baton of a microphone approximately four football fields away from his mouth, demonstrating calamitous technique to an unsuspecting American public. Yes, he could be heard just fine over the air, even as he flouted the world’s most perfect piece of advice—but that’s only because he was working with professional equipment. You see, Barker held a condenser microphone (a Sony ECM-51, to be precise, according to one extremely devoted fan), which is more sensitive than the dynamic microphones laypeople are likely to encounter in the wild. And he was working in a studio where engineers could adjust his levels as needed. That gave him the godlike power to tilt his mic gently toward contestants from a waist-high grip, like he was half-heartedly casting a spell with a magic wand, and still pick up their voice while they chatted at the Big Wheel. We mortals do not have such a luxury. Instead of admonishing us to spay and neuter our pets, he should have warned us not to follow his example.

So yes, don’t sweat the small stuff, whatever the small stuff is. Know thyself, whoever you are. Probably don’t live every day like it’s your last, though do have plenty of fun. And when the time comes to share your own advice with the world, please remember to position your mouth roughly three inches from the microphone before speaking.

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