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Town Supervisor Ed LaVigne told the town Planning Board Monday that the Town is taking steps to better communicate with the public, including better sound equipment and mandatory training for all board members.  Open communication with the public is a good thing, even when the public isn't that interested in being communicated with, but especially when they are.  All the municipal boards I cover have some issues with communication, but two stand out: volume and a propensity to talk about something that other board members seem to know about, while the public has absolutely no idea what they are talking about.  The latter issue can be easily solved by getting into the habit of addressing a short summary of each topic before it is discussed.  But being heard is a trickier issue.

As I have asked elected officials many times, what is the point of a public meeting if the public can't understand or hear what the meeting is about?

The short answer is there is no point.  It is a waste of the public's time, and it is disrespectful to the people who elect the board members and who pay the taxes.  Yet, in most cases this slight is not intentional.  Local politicians are not professionals, and some of them are not good public speakers.  They are focused on getting the work of the municipality or district done, but not on how other people hear (or don't hear) what they are saying.

The Town has had a public address system and microphones for as long as I can remember.  The Village has not, despite the fact that the Mayor a very soft speaking voice (he once told me he has a big a big stick) that often is impossible to hear.  But even in the Town board members are often hard to hear because they don't know how to project their voices in public, and they don't know how to speak effectively into a microphone.

As a musician I understand how to use a microphone.  When to get up close, when to move back a bit to get the most dramatic effect while telling stories in song or spoken word.  Microphones are different in terms of where you have to be for them to pick up your voice.  Some of them have a very narrow zone and if you are to one side it might as well not be turned on.  With some mics you nearly have to swallow them to in order to be heard.  Others have a much wider zone.

For times when you don't want the public to hear what you are saying most mics have on/off switches.  But, again, why would a public official say something they don't want the public to hear in a public meeting (with the possible exception of a clarification from legal counsel)?  Theoretically microphones in public meetings should not have off switches.

Lavaliere mics seem like a good solution.  The Lansing School Board uses wireless lavalieres.

But they also have problems like the dim, yet determined Lina Lamont (played by Jean Hagen) had in the famous scene in 'Singing in the Rain' where they are making a ‘talking picture’ for the first time. They hide a microphone in a bush on the set, but the annoyingly nasal Lina can't get it into her head -- she is a silent picture star, after all -- that she had to speak facing the bush or her lines wouldn't be recorded. The director, Rosco Dexter (portrayed by Douglas Fowley), is beside himself as Lina melodramatically turns her head from side to side, only being heard in the recording booth when she happens to be facing the bush. He tells Lina, "Lina, we're missing every other word! You've got to talk into the mic!"

"Well, I can't make love to a bush!" an exasperated Lina shouts.

Exactly.  School board members have gotten into the habit of turning off their mics and putting them on the table before them, so every cough and wheeze won't end up going through the sound speaker and end up on the video.  Then they speak up, forgetting their mics are not turned on, or even if they have clipped the mic to their collar, when they face away, guess what happens...  Hint: Lina Lamont.

The other piece of this problem is how people speak in public.  Microphone or no microphone, the first thing you learn in Acting 101 is how to project your voice.  If you speak with a lot of air in your voice you are harder to hear.  You need to breathe from the diaphragm, low in your torso to get your voice to project.  Try it.  Say "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog" taking your air from high in your chest and throat.  Now take a deep breath, expanding your diaphragm, and say "THE QUICK BROWN FOX JUMPS OVER THE LAZY DOG" -- hear the difference?

That's what happens when a singer holds a very high note for a very long time and the crowd goes wild.  If the singer hadn't been breathing from the diaphragm, he or she wouldn't have been able to hold the note for as long, and wouldn't have attained the volume that causes crowds to go wild.  It works for speaking, too.  Nobody wants elected officials to speak that way all the time.  Can you imagine standing head to head with a political candidate who bellows his platform in your face?  But when speaking to a crowd, or even to a mostly empty room with just a few people listening, it is important to be heard.

If you can project your voice you don't really need microphones. But when microphones are used, they need to be used effectively. So I hope that as board members in the Town attend their new training, that some of the time will be devoted to projection, both vocal and when using microphones. And I really, really hope the Village invests in a modest sound system. Because the Mayor says interesting things, but may as well not say anything if no one can hear him.

After all, what's the point of a public meeting if the public can't hear it?

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