Gas station without pumps

2010 October 8

Speaking loudly

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:19
Tags: , ,

Over the years, I have gotten very tired of going to conferences and having to listen to speakers who mumble into microphones, or use lapel mikes and turn their heads so that the mike cuts in and out, or wave around game-show-host microphones. In many of these conferences, the acoustics in the room are fine, and no microphone is needed. Particularly bad examples happened at our faculty retreat this year.

To keep grad students in our program from being this sort of embarrassing speaker, our program insists on frequent practice of their speaking skills. We require PhD students to do 3 lab rotations, giving a 10-minute talk at the end of each; we require all grad students to give a 2-minute elevator talk each fall; we require public presentation of both the thesis proposal and the thesis defense (usually for an audience of 20–40 students and faculty); and we require an annual presentation in some other forum (a conference, the campus grad research symposium, engineering review day, … ).

To get students started out right, every fall I teach a “how to be a graduate student class”. This class includes a brief lesson in speaking loudly enough to be heard, followed by practice. The practice session happens out in the woods, where we won’t disturb classes, and where there are no walls to reflect weak voices. Each student is sent 100 feet (30 m) up the path and required to recite or read something (their choice). Students get feedback on whether they are audible, and suggestions for improving their volume and intonation. If anyone is particularly quiet, they are urged to practice more on their own. If anyone is particularly loud, we have a contest between that student and me to see how far away we can go from the group and still be understandable.

Last year, for the first time, there was a student audible for further than I was. This year I was doing a bit better, and the loudest student and I were tied. We managed to be fairly clear from about 500 feet, but 600 feet and around the bend in the path so that trees blocked the direct sound was too distorted. The student who was successful this year had training as an actor, and had the further advantage of a naturally deep voice, which is usually more comprehensible at loud volume than a higher-pitched voice.

Although few students will ever have the need for full volume, it is good for them to practice using a bit more volume than they expect to need, so that they can fill a classroom with their voices for a full lecture without strain, and without the crutch of unreliable electronic aids. It also helps them ask questions in class and research seminars so that everyone can hear the question, greatly improving the flow of discussions.


  1. […] Also objectionable to me are the speakers who drone and mumble.  I know I’m beginning to get a bit deaf (the audiologist tells me that hearing aids are unlikely to help for another couple of years, but I could just qualify for them on my insurance plan), but I can still hear speakers who face the audience and talk to them all, and not just their friend in the front row who invited them. But I’ve already ranted about that in Speaking Loudly. […]

    Pingback by A counterpoint to my plea « Gas station without pumps — 2011 February 2 @ 23:02 | Reply

  2. […] involves speaking loudly. Not yelling or screaming, but speaking loudly and clearly. I’ve posted about speaking loudly before, but I got a query by e-mail about exactly what I teach in the exercise, so I thought I’d go […]

    Pingback by Speaking loudly « Gas station without pumps — 2011 April 30 @ 10:16 | Reply

  3. […] in class discussions is a useful skill. (UPDATE: Previous posts on how I teach speaking loudly: Speaking loudly 1,  Speaking loudly […]

    Pingback by Teaching voice projection « Gas station without pumps — 2011 October 16 @ 10:00 | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: