Teleprompters are a relatively recent addition to the field of oratory. The producer of the I Love Lucy TV show claimed credit in the 1950s for the idea and was awarded a U.S. patent for its invention [see below for update]. Since that time, scores of political figures and business people have used teleprompters to deliver speeches. The tool's convenience is unquestioned; its effectiveness, however, is very dependent on the user's skill.
In the best of all possible scenarios, the speaker reading from the teleprompter panels appears to be looking directly into the camera or directly at the audience and speaking spontaneously. In too many scenarios, though, the best doesn't happen and the speaker never connects with the audience.
Here are some tips which will make you less stilted when using a teleprompter.
1. Read the script through several times without the teleprompter. This enables you to get familiar with the phrasing and cadence, particularly if someone else has written the speech. It also makes it less likely that you'll be thrown off if the teleprompter has a word misspelled or if a line end on the screen creates an unnatural break in a sentence.
2. Speak naturally which is challenging because most people aren't used to reading text out loud. When we read silently to ourselves, our brain intuitively adds the inflections, the pauses and the conversational quality. But when we read out loud, those things don't happen automatically. Be especially conscious to avoid a sing-song quality which makes you sound disengaged. Strive to infuse emotion into your voice and connect with the audience.
3. Know your teleprompter operator and rehearse several times with him/her. Set your own pace; a skilled operator should be able to follow you and adjust the scrolling words to suit your pace, but don't leave this to chance by not rehearsing.
4. Have a few people in the audience while you are rehearsing so they can assess the effectiveness of your eye contact. Your goal, of course, is to look like you're not reading. You also want to avoid the robotic movement of your head from side to side as you shift back and forth between two teleprompter screens, something President Obama has been accused of more than once.
5. Take a hard copy of your speech with you. Teleprompters have been known to malfunction and although Bill Clinton reportedly continued seamlessly for over 15 minutes when his teleprompter failed, you may not be so skilled.
Just like with other types of speech delivery, practice with the teleprompter will indeed make perfect.
Other interesting posts on using teleprompters:
- Max Atkinson's lessons on how Ronald Reagan coped with a malfunctioning teleprompter.
- Bert Decker on Obama, Teleprompters and Authenticity.
- And for a read that will have you giggling out loud, Barack Obama's Teleprompter's Blog [because there is no POTUS without TOTUS], claiming to offer "reflections from the hard drive of the machine that enables the voice of the Leader of the Free World."
A kind reader, Laurie Brown, wrote to say that she had the privilege of interviewing one of the men who invented the teleprompter, Hub Schlafly, and she did not believe he had any connection to Lucille Ball. It does appear that he, with 2 colleagues, founded the TelePrompTer Corporation but I have not been able to find confirmation that he actually invented the device. See here for another source that attributes the teleprompter invention to Jess Oppenheimer, producer of I Love Lucy, and here for a copy of his patent. Anybody have any insight on who really invented the teleprompter?