Listen Up – What Matters Most Online

by Dave Thomas

What is the most important technical element for a successful webinar? Should I invest in a high definition camera, a new state of the art computer or invest in a 3-position lighting system for my office? Our view is to invest in none of them – focus first on how you sound.

To understand the importance of sound, we need only look at an industry that is first and foremost a visual medium: the motion picture industry. Ray Dolby was a sound pioneer. With the release of the groundbreaking hiss reduction technology in 1966, Dolby A, his recording systems went on to revolutionize the sound industry. But the film industry, despite being usually thought of as a visual medium, was also very interested in improving the quality of the moviegoer experience.

Stanley Kubrick, ever the innovator, was the first to use Dolby sound in a movie, A Clockwork Orange. Other films followed through the 70’s with ever improving technology but one film in particular made audiences aware of the critical role of sound. It changed the way that we listened to movies forever: Star Wars. We can all see the opening scene of Princess Leia’s ship as it flees the Star Destroyer above the planet Tatooine. That massive ship that mesmerized us as it rumbles into view is a great example of the power and engagement of good sound.

On Zoom we believe the same to be true: start with sound. Zoom has three streams that form the audiovisual component of a webinar:

  1. Your image – this is the webcam and shows your face and background for the class.
  2. Screen share – the most important image, this can range from a full screen share to a limited view of one program. This is the most important visual element in a webinar and usually matches the resolution of your own screen.
  3. Voice – this is the critical element that cannot be overlooked and is the most immediate and persistent of all the ways you will connect with your audience.

We have all experienced those Zoom calls – looking at a slide while someone who sounds like they are using a victrola at the bottom of a well tries to explain something to us. The chat window lights up as people struggle to understand what is happening and the audience is lost in mere minutes. We must always remember that our voice is the key source of information during a webinar – what is on the screen, what’s coming next, and why the audience should care. If people can’t hear you well they will drop quickly.

Tips for Good Sound

The good news is that a good sound set up is not expensive and there are lots of options to choose from.

USB Microphone – don’t rely on your laptop or computer microphone. They are generally tinny and not very good. Some webinar hosts like to use a headset and this is fine but make sure they are a good pair. For my money, a good USB microphone will do a great job without breaking the bank. Most of them use Digital Signal Processing in the microphone and are a breeze to plug and play. I use a Blue Yeti with the settings to cardioid which means it has a sensitivity field geared for speaking. I have it set to 16bit, 48,000Hz which is the output level it was designed for.

External Speakers – I have a simple set up with Logitech speakers arranged at the back of my desk where I run my courses. They ensure that the sound is clear so I can hear my participants and I have positioned them well out of the way to reduce feedback.

Kill the Echo – even with a good microphone you can still get background noise and troublesome echo especially if you have hard reflective surfaces nearby. Zoom has microphone settings that adjust for background noise but I have never found them helpful. Sound shields and acoustic foam can be expensive but I use a simple trick to deaden noise on my mic: I surround the mic with towels! Towels muffle the sound and I use a very simple setup to keep things quiet. I put down a folded towel for the mic to sit on and then take a large book like an atlas and stand it open behind the mic. I then drape a towel over the book and add another to cover the top. And voila, a simple sound shield that works really well.

One last thought for your setup. Some presenters do not like the sound of their keyboards as they type notes or control their presentation but I am actually a fan. The towel that the microphone sits on will muffle but not eliminate the sound of me typing – to me it’s a logical sound to hear when I am demonstrating something or taking notes. As long as it doesn’t sound like the attack of a Star Destroyer I am usually fine to leave it in.