Not using the microphone at conference talks


In some humanities fields, when you present a paper, that’s exactly what you do. You stand at a microphone and read your paper, word for word. I’m glad that none of those conferences are in my plans.

Nevertheless, scientific conferences are more formal than our normal teaching milieu. People dress up a notch nicer than usual, and there are people being paid to do things on your behalf, like set up A/V equipment.

One of those slightly formal things about conferences is that every presentation space has a lectern and a microphone. The convention site that sets up the rooms for the conferences assumes that all speakers want to stand at a lectern and use a microphone for their speech. For all the organizers know, the presenters might be those people who go up with a manuscript and read.

But we’re not those people. We have no reason to stand at that lectern and speak into the mike. It’s as formal as we want it to be. Why don’t we ditch the formality?

Keep in mind that these rooms are not that much bigger than the larger lecture halls on your campus. It’s just a fancier affair at a conference, so you get a superfluous lectern and a superfluous microphone.

As I teach plenty, I have experience holding forth to a crowd. At a conference, why don’t I apply what I’ve learned from that part of my job? I do find it heartening that people sometimes mention after my talk, “I can tell that you must teach a lot.” They don’t mean that in a negative way, I think it’s a way of saying that I was engaging and at ease. I appreciate the compliment when it happens. I’d rather talk about the science, but it’s still friendly.

When speakers are introduced by the moderator, they see the lectern, and the microphone at the lectern. The default mode is to stand up there and speak into the microphone. The next speaker follows the example of the prior speaker. It befits the formality of the occasion in some way.

But, really, it’s absurd. Nobody is being done a favor by using a microphone in a space that doesn’t require it, and acting like what you’re doing is the most important thing in the world. It’s just a 15 minute presentation. Make it fun, explain why what you did is awesome, and talk about it casually. You want to be professional and show that your work is of high quality, but you also don’t want to be uptight. The entire genre of conference presentations is uptight. You don’t have to be a part of that.

Standing at the lectern with microphone is inherently awkward, because none of us are used to standing at microphones and talking for extended periods. You have to try hard to not be awkward in those circumstances. Why not give your talk in a way that doesn’t necessitate the avoidance of awkwardness?

I’m not the kind of guy that is typically invited to give a keynote or headline a large symposium, so I’m not speaking in cavernous spaces. I think I’ve only spoken twice in venue in which a microphone actually was needed for everyone to easily hear me. Granted, I’m not a quiet guy.

Other than that rare circumstance, I ignore the lectern, ignore the mike, and get up and talk just like I’m teaching a class. (The only difference is that when I’m teaching, I try to not talk, because when someone is talking to you, learning is less likely to happen. Which is probably why a few weeks after a conference, I couldn’t explain one of the talks with any detail.)

Get up, move around. Instead of a laser pointer, walk up to the screen and point with your finger. It’s more engaging. You don’t want to present your research, you want to teach the audience newly discovered information. Talk about it like you’re talking to your own class about the latest finding in the news. This starts with ditching the lectern.

7 thoughts on “Not using the microphone at conference talks

  1. I agree, although it depends on the size of the room. At the ESA I never used to use the mike, but that was because I was getting assigned to small rooms. Lately, I’ve been assigned to medium-sized rooms much deeper than than the typical classroom I teach in (I teach to <60 students at a time). So lately I've been using the mike at ESA. If I projected enough to be heard in the back, it would be a bit loud for people in the front row.

  2. If your voice is booming, then I agree wholeheartedly. I’ve been to many conferences where the speaker skips the mic and doesn’t have a booming voice. Those of us in the back of the room or with hearing limitations lose out!

  3. I agree with your general point that conference talks suffer from being too formal. And you can usually spot the folks from teaching schools – they are often better speakers than the R1 researchers.

    On the other hand, in my experience the people who insist they don’t need a mic usually do.

  4. One of the many useful aspects of having had drama training is the ability to project my voice. My voice as heard in my head and as heard through a microphone are so distinct that unless I can absolutely help it I would rather not use a microphone. While my experience in giving talks is somewhat limited (two talks meant for professionals, and a few others meant for the general public), I haven’t yet had a problem with being too quiet.

    • That is to say: the quality of my talk would markedly suffer, because the difference in pitch, etc. of my voice is incredibly distracting when I speak into a microphone.

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