Laura Kalbag

Mic Issues

In the last year, I’ve had two notably bad experiences with mic fittings when speaking at conferences. Nowadays most events have a Code of Conduct, but I’ve found them to be largely unenforced, with some of the worst conduct coming from organisers or people working for the event.

Skip the background, get straight to how to fit a microphone to a person without making them feel uncomfortable.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted on Twitter and Mastodon looking for advice for tech teams on how to fit a mic and behave appropriately:

Recently I had another bad experience with a person fitting my mic at a conf where I was speaking. Can anyone recommend good resources on appropriate behaviour for conf tech teams?

(If I’m going to blog about it, I’d like to link to legit advice from people who know their stuff!)‬

Unfortunately, without explicit descriptions of what happened, a few people made their own assumptions. Perhaps I don’t know how wireless microphones work and how they should be fitted. Or I am a diva who refuses to fit a microphone to herself. Or I don’t know how to use verbal and physical language to deter men from touching me inappropriately. Let me describe the two particular scenarios that happened to me.

Scenario one was a panel where I needed a lapel mic (small mic attached to a clip) fitted to the chest of my shirt. It’s easy to clip a lapel mic to a shirt because there are gaps between buttons where you can clip the mic, and the buttons ensure it doesn’t ride up or slip down. Then you have to find a place to clip/hide the wireless receiver (often referred to as a ‘mic pack’) and all the cable that runs between the mic and the receiver. It’s usually easiest to attach the mic pack to a waistband or belt or put it a back pocket. Then you can hide the cable under your clothes so it doesn’t look messy or get caught or tangled while you’re speaking.

On this occasion, the tech person clipped the lapel mic to my shirt, then put their hand down the inside of my shirt to feed the mic pack and cable to the back of my body.

Scenario two was a talk where I needed a head mic, a small mic that sits alongside the face, attached with hooks over the ears and around the back of the head. As with the lapel mic, you have to attach the mic pack to something and hide the cables. I was wearing a dress with tights underneath, and I knew this meant it was slightly trickier to attach the mic pack. Still, I was prepared to fit it to the waistband at the back of my tights.

I discussed the fitting with the tech person who promptly lifted the back of my dress to start putting the mic pack on the waistband of my tights. They also did the same thing again when I went to remove the mic after my talk.

On both occasions I assured the tech person I knew how to fit a microphone, and was willing to put the microphone where they needed, based on their advice. I’ve used microphones enough times to know the basics, but also understand that they’re the experts and know what will produce the best sound quality. Both times, when I was uncomfortable with the way they touched me, I quickly moved, taking the mic pack away from them, to do it myself.

I don’t think either of these people had ulterior motives, they weren’t trying to harass me. But both incidents made me incredibly uncomfortable. I don’t expect to be touched, or to have my clothes moved or removed, by a stranger without my permission or at least prior warning.

It would be easy to consider me overly sensitive or insecure to react in such a way in these scenarios. But honestly, having strangers touch you like this can really throw you, especially if you’re already feeling tense and unsure of yourself. I don’t want to be touched up by a stranger before waltzing on stage! Both times I didn’t make a fuss (though I had every right to do so) but instead told the organisers later. Mostly because I was about to give a talk and take part in a panel. I was already nervous and my mind was occupied with doing the best job I could for the event. I didn’t need to be worrying about what just happened on top of everything else. I’m usually nervous and awkward for the first few minutes of an event, it takes me time to warm up and be comfortable in front of people. These experiences amplified that tense nervousness and the feeling I was not in control.

And I didn’t need to be made to feel this way. It wasn’t appropriate behaviour that considered my feelings. These were both events staffed with professional tech teams. They weren’t even volunteers or people who hadn’t fitted microphones before. And importantly, this doesn’t happen at every event where I speak. For better or worse, I’m the kind of conflict-averse person that’ll put up with a lot of slights before I comment. I can imagine experiences like this could completely alienate women and other marginalised people who are new to speaking.

We need to conduct ourselves in an inclusive and considerate manner to attract (and not deter!) more speakers to spaces where their voices are desperately needed.

Photo of me on a panel where I am wearing a long button-up dress with a lapel microphone.

A panel where I was wearing that same dress with tights. The person who helped fit my microphone was helpful and respectful. (I have the mic pack on my lap because I didn’t want to squash it when I sat down!)

How to fit a microphone to a person without making them feel uncomfortable

I asked for advice on Twitter and Mastodon because couldn’t find any useful or relevant guidance on how to fit a microphone to a person without making them feel uncomfortable. Is this because it’s considered common sense? Is it because professionals have their own policies? I’ve no idea, but given that many conference organisers are folks who don’t have a background in event management, maybe some basic guidance would be useful.

Adam Markon kindly shared his protocol when he used to work in TV production for sports:

  1. demonstrate on ourselves where we need everything to go and explain how the mic itself works if they don’t know
  2. ask if they’re comfortable doing it themselves or if they need help with any steps
  3. if they need help at any point be very clear about where your hands will be and what you’re trying to do

This really covers all the basics. Personally I don’t require someone of the same gender to fit my microphone (understandably this would make some people feel more comfortable.) I’m even fine with being touched by a person fitting a microphone, just as long as they ask first and warn me what they’re doing to do. Karen Reilly recommended this interesting forum thread on etiquette for fitting mics. There’s so much valuable advice in there too (along with some odd suggestions like wearing gloves!)

If you’re a conference organiser reading this, I’d really appreciate you briefing your tech team on fitting microphones. Even if they’re a professional team where you assume they know what they’re doing. I’d consider it a vital part of enforcing a code of conduct, and a way to show you really care about the experience of your speakers. Little things make a difference.

Thanks to Aral for his proof-reading eye.