If you want to hear or be heard, check the acoustics

“I love hearing my audience breathe.” - Adele

An estimated 30 million Americans have some form of hearing loss. This fact makes it likely that many people are unable to participate fully in conversations or comprehend the overall intent of live presentations.

In 2012, an article published by Michigan State University Extension offered suggestions to ensure audience-members, particularly those who are hard-of-hearing, have every opportunity to become fully engaged in a meeting or presentation. Although these suggestions are extremely useful, it may be helpful to delve a little further into understanding how the shape and content of a room can affect what an individual hears.

According to Dr. Trevor Cox, a professor of acoustical engineering who was recently interviewed on NPR, there are three items that affect room sound: the environment itself, an individual’s personal hearing abilities and the immediate circumstances. For instance, someone who is in a dark room might become frightened by unusual noises they think they have heard. Suddenly, they may become more aware of their own heartbeat than of other nearby sounds. Hence, the dark room (environment) and unusual noises (interpreted in part by the noises they heard – personal hearing abilities) were influenced by their immediate circumstances (fear).

While listening to Cox’s interview, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the 30 million Americans who are hard-of-hearing. How much do those of us who provide educational programming, presentations or lead meetings review the acoustics of a room beforehand?

By examining the shape and content of a room, here are a few suggestions that may us optimize acoustic effectiveness and ensure the speakers voice is heard more clearly:

Physical distance from the speaker

  • Encourage people to sit closer to the speaker
  • When talking, the speaker should always face the people being addressed

Ability of sound waves to travel to the audience

  • Close windows and doors to eliminate outside noises
  • Turn off electrical appliances that may interrupt the speaker’s voice projection

Objects between the speaker and the listener

  • Search out a room with carpeted surfaces and low ceilings
  • Avoid bare furnishings – tablecloths, drapes and padded soft furniture absorb extraneous noises

Fully engaging an audience and obtaining active public participation not only depends on what is said, but on what is heard. To ensure that everyone will hear exactly what is being verbalized, examine the room acoustics before a program, presentation or meeting. 

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