Hearing at the Technical Communication Summit ’08

Guest author: Lori Gillen

My new mantra is "It's not just the volume. It's the clarity." This was my biggest "Ah HA" moment regarding my ability to hear and enjoy the Technical Communication Summit in Philadelphia last week. I realized that I was hearing the speakers' voices just fine but I was still not discerning each and every word they were saying, and that's when it dawned on me that it's not only a matter of speaking up, it's a matter of speaking clearly too.

But how do you tell someone to speak more clearly, especially when the issue is the person's accent or intonation? I recall the advice of Arthur Burtman, a wise man who has been giving Red Cross Fire Safety presentations for over 40 years. I once asked him to give me some tips for speaking to an audience of seniors. He said "SPEAK LOUDLY… SPEAK SLOWLY… AND DON'T TURN YOUR BACK TO THE AUDIENCE." So much for my "Speak Up" sign. I designed this sign to combat my shyness of interrupting a speaker that I could not hear. My intention was to send a simple message ("Speak up, please") to the speaker who could then make adjustments in volume without disrupting the rest of the audience. But I know now that my sign needs to say "Speak up and speak clearly!" And it certainly doesn't hurt to retain a courteous "please!" At this conference, I learned how far I've come. In the past, I would sit back, complaining to myself about how the planners were not accommodating me when in fact they did not know they were supposed to make accommodations. This year, I approached one of the planners and told her that I would like to attend the opening session rather than sit it out as I had done for the past five conferences. The planner walked me right up to the front of the meeting room and sat me down in front of one of the screens so not only could I hear the speakers I could see them as if they were standing right in front of me. Those visual cues go a long way to assisting my lack of hearing and being proactive works a lot better than just sitting on my butt doing nothing. I learned a few other lessons that I would like to share with you so that adjustments can be made for next year's conference:
  • Two people cannot share one microphone. If two people must share the same microphone, the speaker must step forward and take command of the microphone and the other person must step backwards.
  • A forum is a difficult format for me to hear. There are no PowerPoint slides to provide backup to what I am not hearing and questions from the audience might not be repeated by the moderator. All presenters should be urged to produce PowerPoint slides as a text equivalent, and they should ALWAYS repeat questions from the audience.
  • The audio-visual people must be available to fix technical problems. In one instance, the speaker was talking into two microphones. One was at the appropriate level but the other was not, so the audience heard some of the presentation clearly and some of it too softly. The audio-visual person never came to adjust the microphone that was not working well.
  • Conference planners should provide assistive-listening devices to all attendees who need them. And while I have your attention, Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) captioning would be a major benefit to many conference speakers, not only to those who have a functional hearing loss, but to those who can't hear the speaker because of the situation - the acoustics, their distance away from the speaker, side conversations, and so forth.
Overall, I felt I was very well accommodated at the Technical Communication Summit, and that was fine except that I had to really work hard to pay attention during the large audience-style gatherings. I am not used to paying attention at these gatherings because I am not used to being accommodated. So now I have to re-train myself to pay attention, but that's another blog entry for another time.


  1. Karen Mardahl

    Submitted on 2008/06/20 at 7:31 pm

    Thanks for your interesting and educational comments about hearing at the conference. I have learned a lot about the hearing side of the conference from you, and for that, I thank you.

    I recall a session that we both attended where the speaker rattled off her words very quickly. I thought she projected her voice very well and thought the level of sound would be good for you. I was surprised when you said, no, the speed ruined everything. Apparently, the speed makes it difficult to distinguish between words. Yes, loud is not the entire picture!

    I have always been bothered by questions from the audience. I have good hearing and I cannot always hear these people because of the direction or acoustics. Some speakers were very good at repeating the question. However, there is one more nuance here. It shouldn’t be repeatquestionanswer. It should be Repeat question. Period. Answer. 🙂

    Your pointers for speakers were presented at the Speaker training session on the Sunday before the conference began. However, not everyone attended, so next year, we must make sure this information gets to all speakers by pointing them to the posts we already have here on the blog, as well as placed in whatever material is handed out to them in advance of the conference.

    Once again, this advice can benefit everyone. Presentations can bombard you with information. Clear and articulate speakers can also ensure that our brains can keep up sometimes! 🙂

    Fabien – you put some icing on the cake with your distinction between ACCESS and ACCESSIBILITY. That is an interesting angle that I had not thought about. It is something that we could probably ponder a bit and consider in our work. Are we doing the minimum, or are we going that extra step? Thank you for sharing those thoughts.

  2. Fabien Vais

    I suspect I know who wrote this excellent report. But in any case, I want to thank and congratulate its author.

    For years, I have been trying to explain to everyone around me the distinct difference between ACCESS and ACCESSIBILITY. This report about “Hearing at the Philadelphia Summit” is a perfect example of this.

    At the annual conference, ACCESS was to have microphone available for all speakers, and to provide assistive-listening devices to all who needed them. Ramps and automatic doors should now be taken for granted… ACCESSIBILITY, on the other hand, is to realize that there is a difference between volume and sound clarity. I agree totally.

    Accommodations for people with disabilities have greatly evolved, but we are now in the 21st century. I don’t think I need to thank the Post Office any more for thinking of installing a ramp or an automatic door. This is ACCESS. It’s now the law.

    But I will continue to thank a store (often publicly) who is conscious about the width of its aisles, to make sure that people using a wheelchair are able to move around safely in their store. That’s ACCESSIBILITY. Accessibility is going the extra mile, and beyond what the law dictates.

    At the conference, ACCESS is asking speakers to speak into the mike, to repeat questions from the audience, etc. ACCESSIBILITY is informing speakers in advance (STC should do this…) that there will be people who have various disabilities in the audience, and they all deserve the same amount of respect and courtesy. Some can’t see very well, others can’t hear well, still others (like me by the way…) have a hard time making out anything that is said when there is a “hum” in the room, like people talking next to me, or even the noise of the air conditioning in the background. I have difficulty discerning sounds, like speaking to someone when the TV is on, or having a conversation at a noisy party.

    Thank you again to the author of this report. I hope I have added to the (relative new) concept of ACCESS vs. ACCESSIBILITY.

    Fabien Vais