TelePrompTer 101

TelePrompTers have a number of important uses. For an executive or expert whose delivery or English is a little shaky, it’s a way to reinforce proper pronunciations and phrasing. For a CEO or attorney providing a legal response, it provides the ability to deliver a prepared statement verbatim. Sometimes this is done for timing as well or to make sure every key message is covered.

TelePrompTers allow you to appear to talk straight to the camera without memorizing a text. In many important meetings and political rallies, they are used off to the side, on stage. These are referred to as “Presidential TelePrompTers. The speaker often looks from side to side, as if to address each part of the audience, but they are actually looking from prompter screen to prompter screen. In the past, TelePrompTers tended to be expensive, but with tablet computers, you can create your own TelePrompTer at home fairly cheaply. However, reading from a TelePrompTer takes some practice, so be sure to try it out before getting in front of the camera or live audience.

Some people ad lib extensively and have the ability to go on and off script, but this requires some rapport with the TelePrompTer operator. There are times when the TelePrompTer is run by the person speaking, by foot pedal or handheld remote device, but it generally takes away from the performance. The illusion of course that you are trying to create is that you are not “reading”. Another category is the “ear” prompter—which means you record your presentation and play it back in your ear and repeat what is said. Some people master this—for others, it is impossible. And let me also say, some well known people never master the TelePrompTer either. There are still a lot of people who prefer to work off Cue Cards. All of “Saturday Night Live” is done off Cue Cards, not TelePrompTer. When I’m working with a celebrity I’ve never worked with before, I always have both ready. Sometimes it’s necessary to use a mix of both, particularly if you are shooting a wide shot and they aren’t close enough to read the prompter.

There is a tendency for a read off a TelePrompTer to sound robotic. One trick is to read the prepared text and try to make it sound as though you aren’t reading, that it is in fact, spontaneous. I’ve often coached clients who are doing radio to have some prepared text but make it sound like they are ad libbing, “off the cuff.” Once you have mastered this from a piece of paper, you can translate those skills to reading off the prompter.

I would suggest reading the script a few times before seeing it on the prompter, then rehearse with the prompter. The line breaks will make the script look significantly different. Punctuation often doesn’t show up properly on the TelePrompTer, and while some formats allow you to underline or put key words in different colors, you’ll have to pay attention to what you’re saying to avoid seeming robotic. Many speakers ad lib a little from a prepared speech to make the presentation seem more spontaneous, but this requires synergy with the prompter operator, if you have one, so that they know when to stop and start.

Having covered Presidential campaigns, which calls for the common use of TelePrompTers, I know that the media is generally given a hard copy of the presenter’s speech in advance. Two great orators I have seen live, Ronald Reagan and Jesse Jackson, would go way off their prepared remarks after gauging the audience reaction. I can remember both doing speeches that didn’t cover a line of the prepared copy. I worked for a Governor who almost never read my prepared speeches verbatim. A true expert knows when not to use the device.

Mastering the Prompter can be a challenge. The most common coaching tip I give is to encourage the presenter to use his or her peripheral vision to keep eye contact with the center of the lens, rather than following the words left to right which can give sort of a “shifty eyed” false impression. That’s a short overview of using the prompter. In writing this I realize there’s a lot more to cover, but the best way to learn is to try to experiment with a TelePrompter yourself.