We have all been at events where the AV fails; it can be frustrating for the organisers, distracting for the audience and disappointing for the speakers. Often the technical aspects can feel overwhelming if you don’t have a technical background. So what can you do and what do you need to know?
When I started organising events in university I found myself troubleshooting projectors and dealing with faulty microphones. It was a steep learning curve, but it made me feel more confident to get hands on with the technical aspects of events I organised in the future. Many of the events I have worked on have been in the non-profit world, which means low budgets and not having the luxury of outsourcing the AV. I am by no means a sound engineer, lighting expert or videographer but I have learned what to ask, keep in mind and watch out for. So here is a basic checklist to think through, depending on the AV requirements of your event:
Lighting is a great way to create ambience and a low cost way to make your stage more interesting. First let’s think about lighting your stage and speakers. Decide if you speakers will be moving around the stage or speaking from a podium, this will determine how much of the stage and where you need to light. For TEDxEastEnd we use a red carpet for the speakers to stand on: this is the area they can move around on, making it easier to just light one area and not the whole stage, which could interfere with a projection screen. Also be aware of how shadows are cast on the stage and how the lighting looks on the speaker’s face. Lighting speakers from below can create a ghostly look, the ideal situation is to have ‘rigging‘ so you can light speakers from above. If the venue doesn’t have a rig then you can use freestanding lights.
You can use uplighters on the stage to create an cool effect on the wall or light different parts of the stage design without having to deal with overhead lighting or how this impacts lighting your speakers. One cool trick I learned from TED is to light your audience, which allows you to get photographs of the audience without ruining the ambience. Here is an example of how we did this is 2012, by side lighting our audience in blue:
Sound is more important than I ever realised, it impacts both the live event and any video you take from your event. For TEDx events, the videos we produce of the talks are as important as the live event, so sound is something I quickly learned to pay attention to. Regardless of what type of mic you use make sure to do a soundcheck so the speakers are comfortable with the mic and you know the sound level that works well for the size of the room.
There are many different types of microphones: wired handheld, wireless handheld, tabletop, lapel and headset. Here are some basics I have learned about each:
- Handheld: as the name suggests you hold these in your hand. They are good for performers, who often use them with a stand and for a host or MC who isn’t speaking from the stage for a long period of time. The trouble with these is that they can easily give feedback (the loud and painful screeching sound) especially if there is more than one on the stage. They are also difficult to use for people who are not used to using them, who often hold the mic too close or too far away from their mouth. I’ve only ever used wired handheld mics for experienced performers or when there was no other option.
- Table top: often used for panel discussions. I haven’t used this type of mic extensively, but what to find out here is whether the speaker controls the mic (by pressing a button on the mic) or they are controlled by a sound board. One thing to keep in mind is if they stay on permanently they can capture papers rustling or water bring poured, so it is important to test how sensitive they are.
- Lapel: these are the most common type of mic used at events where speakers are moving around and not at a podium or table. If you are using these type of mics test them out on the speaker in advance. You will need to find the best place for it to clip onto so it is as close as it needs to be to the speaker’s mouth – often the lapel of a jacket, top of a shirt, etc. The most important thing is to make sure that nothing touches the mic while the speaking is talking – for example long hair brushing against it, a necklace, jacket collar, or the speaker’s hands. The other thing to remind speakers is that you will need somewhere to clip the wireless receiver. This is most easily done to the back of someone’s belt/trousers/skirt, but if the speaker is wearing a dress for example it may need to go into a pocket or be clipped to their underwear!
- Headset: I prefer using this type of mic, but it does take a bit of practice to get it right – and to do that you may need to get a bit up close to your speakers to put it on and adjust it. First thing to note is to get the right ‘colour’ for your speaker’s skin tone, the headsets come in light beige, brown and black. Then to make sure you have practice putting them on and making sure (like above) there is somewhere for the wireless receiver to be clipped. Make sure the mic is in the right place on the speaker’s face, these mics can move easily. Like the lapel mic, you need to make sure nothing is touching the mic; watch out especially for stubble, earrings, long hair and speakers who knock the mic out of place. Here is what they should look like when on:
It’s very common to use a projector or TV during conference for speaker’s slides or to show videos. If you are using a projector you’ll need to find out if it is celling mounted or tabletop or back projection. The only one of these that can cause issues is table top as you then will need to position the speaker out of the way so they don’t block the projector:
It is also important to know if the computer connected to the project needs to be next to it, or if it is wired to a side terminal. The aspect ratio of your projector will also determine the aspect ratio your slides need to be for them to display correctly – you can check and often change this in the settings on the projector. Check in advance so you can make sure speakers create their slides in the correct ratio (either 16:9 or 4:3).
Decide how you will advance the slides, whether they will be controlled by the computer or you will use a clicker. Test the clicker out in advance so you know where it needs to be held and make sure all the speakers know this in advance. There are two types of clickers: one that advances the slides automatically and one that send a single to the tech desk to advance the slides. With either clicker there can be a delay so to avoid you speakers clicking to many times or getting frustrated have them test it to get comfortable.
Finally, I hate speakers standing in font of the projector screen. It makes lighting very difficult if not impossible and doesn’t turn out well on video or photos. If you are using TV or plasma screens then it is important to make sure they are big enough for everyone to see the content on them.
4. Video recording and livestreaming
When I started organising TEDxEastEnd video was a whole new world (of worry!) I’m lucky to have always worked with very competent filming crews – here are just a few things I have learned over the years. Some of what you will need to do is technical and this is just a list of things to ask about and be aware of:
- How many cameras are you going to use and where will they be placed around the room? My first TEDx event used two cameras and the last one used five. Each has a different purpose and it depends on how professional you want the videos to be, each camera captures something different (wide shot, close up, roaming, audience etc). This is a great resource from TED on camera positions and angles.
- Sounds for videos needs to be recorded directly from the sound board (mics) and not from the built-in mics in the cameras. If you also want to capture the audience (clapping, laughing etc) then you need to position a directional mic at the audience.
- If you are using a projector then you will often get flickering (or banding) when trying to film the screen. You will need your camera team to change a setting in their camera to fix this. Related to this is making sure the screen is either offset from the speaker (as in the photo above) or is high enough above their head so it doesn’t appear as if they are cut off by the screen.
- If you are going to edit the slides into the video in post production then make sure you provide the editor with the original slides and not have them use the video footage of the screen.
- Livestreaming can be a great way to engage audiences from all around the world. You can either go for a low-tech options, which is just using a webcam and built in mic in computer to livestream. If you want something more professional you will need to use a team with the right equipment. Make sure you test the internet speed in advance and have the right upload speed, also that the internet line is wired and not wifi and that it is only going to be used for the livestream. Sharing the same connection, with the audience wifi for example, can effect the quality of the livestream and can even stop the broadcast. Livestreaming is an all or nothing business, if you don’t have the budget for a professional team and cameras then better not to do it or just use a webcam – trying to cut corners or costs will often mean you won’t get anything better than a webcam anyway.
- Live editing, for larger events, means having an onsite director that cuts between cameras for your livestream – much like on live events on TV. Live editing can save your editing costs down the line, if like at TEDx events you want to produce videos of the speakers to put online after the event.
There are a number of things to consider, regarding the AV, when deciding how to set-up the room. Find out where the tech desk (with sound, lighting technicians and equipment) will need to be and where you will need to position cameras. This way you can make sure no one’s view is obstructed and that you have the desk as close to the stage as necessary. Also consider were you will position screens and the speaker so that everyone has a good view.
With all AV it is important to test as much as possible before the event and to make sure every member of the technical team has a clear role and knows the order (rundown) of the show. I try to run a full rehersal in advance and soundcheck all the speakers to make sure the team and the speaker is comfortable with the mic, lighting, clicker etc. There are lots of great resources and video tutorials online where you can find out more – have a look at this great production guide from TED.