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In 2002, my sister Liz was a contestant on the Millionaire game show. She showed off her special talent for remembering obscure facts and won $36,000. Go Liz!

It was only when Liz walked onto the set – and I blew my best taxi-beckoning whistle – did I realize my mic was hot. I could tell by the looks on the producers’ faces as they came rushing at me to stop me from splitting their ears again.

See what happens when users aren’t properly trained?

Do you actually like being embarrassed?

I remember that story whenever I participate in a webinar or Zoom call and I can hear a phone ringing, a toilet flushing, or participants coughing, chewing, or yelling at the dog. I’ve even experienced participants running a power drill or hammering nails while “listening” to the rest of us.


Don’t they know their mics are open?

We’ve all been reluctant eavesdroppers on secondary conversations when the speaker puts his hand over the mic, erroneously believing he’s blocking his noises. “(Thump, crackle, rustle, rustle) Yea, I’m doing this webinar. No, like 30 minutes. Yea, I’ll come down there when it’s over. Thanks. Hey, close the door. Thanks. (Thump, crackle, rustle, rustle, squeeek.) OK, sorry.” 

News flash: We heard all that.

Another “favorite” is the sound of a cattle herd as the presenter types on the keyboard. This happens most often with someone using a speakerphone or mics built into her computer.

And embarrassment is only part of the problem. Think of the pain you’re causing other participants who may have chronic headaches, tinnitus, or any kind of hearing challenge; bombarding them with random noises is downright cruel. Do you really want to harm people so mindlessly?

Mute your mic!

Whether you’re the presenter or a participant, the solution couldn’t be simpler: In every webinar, Zoom call, town board meeting, or virtual yoga class, MUTE YOUR MIC WHENEVER YOU ARE NOT TALKING!

If you’re the presenter, start by stating that ground rule and asking all participants to comply. (If you may be dealing with tech newbies, plan to open the line a few minutes early so that you can coach the tentative ones.) 

To control your microphone, first locate the MUTE button on your phone or headset cord, or in your virtual classroom software interface. Practice turning it on and off, and then USE IT to MUTE YOUR MIC WHENEVER YOU ARE NOT TALKING. And remember to turn it back on before you speak again.

Some presenters, expecting to speak nonstop for an hour, will lock their mics into the ON position. But why put that demand on yourself? It’s kinder and more realistic to build in mini-breaks so that you can you stop and start again. You’ll learn to love those brief opportunities to breathe, apply some ChapStick, sip water or tea, or clear your throat.

Putting on and taking off your headset? Mute your mic. Coughing, sneezing, chewing, or muttering? Mute your mic. Turning your attention to another call or conversation? Mute your mic. Typing or waiting for participants to type? Mute your mic.

Of walkie-talkies and bandwidth drain

Here’s another approach. Rather than think of session audio as a speakerphone, think walkie-talkie. Remember that half-duplex method? The first talker held the mic open only when he spoke. Then, he released it to let the second person reply.

Virtual classroom software such as Adobe Connect includes a “single speaker mode” that allows only one user to speak at a time. Beware, however, that this mode can be frustrating if all presenters are not disciplined to mute when finished – since no one else can talk until the original speaker remembers to click Mute!

Once you’re on a session and everyone is muted except the main speaker, you’ll notice the absence of buzzing, whirring, and static. Ahh. Listeners will notice improved clarity in the recording, too.

If ear-ease doesn’t motivate you keep mics muted, know that multiple open mics also can cause unnecessarily burden network connections for participants using voice over IP (VoIP) audio.

Participants with low bandwidth or congested connections often experience audio that clips or fades.

To optimize the use of available bandwidth, limit the number of participants with open mics.

When to make an exception

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: Aren’t there times when hearing others’ noises – laughing, sighing, grunting, even remaining silent – is critical to the exchange? Especially as in-person meetings have become rare these days, many of us miss those conversational nuances. Don’t participants’ nonverbal cues provide important information and build cohesion? Won’t the effort involved in unmuting and speaking up mean that a few people may never get heard?

My answer is … well, maybe. In certain contexts – a team-building session, for example – perhaps those sounds convey something important. If you’ve thought it through and are certain you want to capture those sounds, then go ahead.

But, before you let loose the audio free-for-all, weigh the pros and cons. What happens when a barking dog or ringing phone obscures what’s being said? How many users wearing hearing aids may lose the conversation amid the sounds of bags rattling and dishes being stacked?

Conclusion: Set the stage – and don’t skip the training part

Successful trainers have seen that sessions go better when participants know and agree to a few ground rules at the outset, and when less-skilled users learn how to operate the tools smoothly. Just a few minutes of training can pay off in stronger network connections, better-quality recordings, and less stress on participants’ ears and patience.

Some of my esteemed colleagues may differ on this, but I’m going to stand firm: To all conference-callers: Mute your mic whenever you are not talking.

Want to share something about your experiences managing audio? Call me at 585.370.2341.

Updated 4.7.20

Mute your mic whenever
you’re not talking
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