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If people have ears to hear, let them listen

29 April 2009

Hearing difficulties are increasing across the population. Speakers need to be alert to the issues, says Brian Cranwell

It would be easier (though an un­welcome evolutionary change) if there were some sort of visible changes to our ears when they start to fail. If I see someone with a guide dog, I know what to expect. When people talk to me in a crowded room, they frequently have no idea that I cannot distinguish what they are saying from the hubbub.

Many speakers do not realise that there are techniques for using a microphone which they need to learn. The RNID says that one third of people under 55 admit having to pretend they have understood, and another 38 per cent report that other people often have to repeat things for them. But many speakers’ worst habits also frequently provide prob­lems for those whose hearing is not impaired.

One of my colleagues, who is a Bishop’s Adviser on Ageing, pointed out that training in the use of microphones is not on the syllabus at theological colleges. My wife, who trained teachers for many years and came down heavily on classroom mutterers, was initially baffled when she had to use a microphone to address a hall of 200 students. But, as she said to the amused young assem­bly, she soon discovered why pop singers hold them so close to their mouths.

As David Lodge (who is also a linguist) writes in his novel Deaf Sentence (Harvill Secker, 2008), consonants have a higher fre­quen­cy than vowels, and we de­pend on them to distinguish one word from another. Loss of higher frequency sounds is the most common feature of hearing im­pediment. For many people (es­pecially, I find, younger film and TV actors), the consonant has become almost redundant (“Innit?”).

I recently attended a diocesan teaching day at which the main speaker (an academic) had almost all the speech features that make hearing difficult.

Among these are:

• speed of delivery: the faster the speaker talks, the more the con­sonants overlap, making it difficult to distinguish one word from another. Even for those with normal hearing, the rapid-fire approach makes listening exhausting, and note-taking impossible. With a hear­ing aid, trying to listen becomes a waste of time.

• Witty asides: there is a common tendency for speakers to turn their head to one side, look away from the microphone, and drop their voice when making such an aside. Many speakers also do this when they give what could be called a verbal postscript. They are usually in­audible.

• Addressing the lectern: most of us lip-read to some extent, long before we even realise we are doing it. When speakers consistently have their head bowed, looking down at the lectern or notes, their lips cannot be seen, making hearing more difficult.

I have frequently seen clergy, standing in front of a congregation, who appeared to be preaching or delivering notices to their own feet. They seemed to have no awareness of the importance of eye contact — both for making their audience feel part of the proceedings, and for get­ting their message across.

• Failure to project: a microphone or amplifier cannot give out more conviction and emphasis than the speaker gives to it. Speakers talking to an audience in a monotone, as if to someone standing alongside them in a quiet room, will not have an impact.

The amusing words of Charles Spurgeon, first published in 1877 in Lectures to my Students (Zondervan Publishing, 1979), are well worth reading on this subject. He com­mented: “What a pity to deliver

from the heart doctrines of un­doubted value, in language most appropriate, to commit ministerial suicide by harping on one string, when the Lord has given a fine instrument of many strings to play upon!”

I find that, on the odd occasions when I still run a seminar that involves interacting with the par­ticipants, it is best to make clear from the start that my hearing is not as good as it was, and that it will be helpful if people look up and at me when speaking.

I have found that people are almost always understanding and responsive. If I am giving a talk that requires interaction in church (such as at an all-age service), I have someone alongside to repeat anything I cannot hear. This not only helps me, but others, with or without impaired hearing, who have missed what is said when the respondent has his or her back to them.

The other main source of dif­ficulty can be the telephone. Even with a voice amplifier, I have to ask some people to slow down. I can often detect their impatience, es­pecially in business calls, but I point out that they can either do that, or go on and then have to repeat every­thing.

I agree with David Lodge that, whereas blindness is considered tragic, deafness is seen as comic (but no joke for the deaf). A speaker who wants to be listened to must surely take note of the problems of those with impaired hearing, as well as the need for a professional delivery. Training colleges and courses would do well to see these matters as skills that can be taught and acquired.

In my last parish, a producer from our local BBC radio station gave an hour of her time to coach our lesson-readers in microphone use, with clear benefit to all of us. Helping a speaker realise the value of not speaking too quickly, of speak­ing with conviction, of the value of eye contact, and careful enunciation will pay dividends for years to come.

The Revd Brian Cranwell is a retired priest in the diocese of Sheffield, and a former man­age­ment consultant.

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