Behind the Mask

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Members of the Anonymous collective are easily recognisable for the Guy Fawkes masks they are wearing in public. Their protest is not silent, though; sometimes, they also deliver speeches. This is probably not part of your usual speaking experience, but have you ever considered the challenges of speaking while wearing a mask?

There are several aspects that make this a challenge for both the speaker and for the audience. A very practical problem is that the mask will get in the way of acoustics. The typical Guy Fawkes mask only has a tiny slit where the mouth is, which results in a muffled sound. On one occasion that I witnessed, the speaker compensated by speaking louder - even though he was already using a microphone. On another occasion, the speaker stuck the microphone under the mask - which really only worked since her face happened to be a bit shorter than the mask.

For the acoustic challenges, I think these two speakers did well, given the circumstances, i.e. being part of public demonstrations, out on the street. As part of a well-choreographed speech in a conference room, a headset may have worked better, but then again that's not exactly the natural environment of Anonymous.

Acoustics are one problem - the lack of a visual connection is another. In fact, they are related, since we always do a little bit of lip reading which further helps us understand a speaker. On top of that, we are used to seeing people's mimics when they speak. The facial expressions help us interpret what the person is saying: Are they passionate about their topic? Was that last sentence an ironic comment or meant to be taken seriously? Many of those nuances are lost when the speaker is wearing a mask, especially a non-moving, stiff one like those Guy Fawkes mask.

On a side note, consider the challenges that make-up artists are facing when they have to come up with, say, an alien face for a science fiction show. They have to cover up the human features yet still allow the actor to show emotions in their facial expressions. This simply wouldn't work with such a fixed mask.

To compensate for the visual and acoustic shortcomings, you have to put more effort into your actual speech, i.e. the content and the expressions and phrasing. The contrast in the two approaches to speeches that I saw was quite obvious: One was well thought-out and intended to inform and educate the audience but rather long-winded while the other was shorter, more articulate, to the point, and with more explicit examples and statements. You can probably guess which speech worked better.

I wonder if this is something worth trying in a coaching session: Have the speaker wear a mask and (ignoring the acoustic challenges) see if they still come across as convincing and worth listening to. Has anyone tried that? What were the results?

(Photo Credit: Minneapolis Scientology Protest by Tony Webster, CC BY, from Flickr)

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