Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Teleprompters and public speaking

I recently had a good laugh when I read the title of an article posted earlie
r this month. It claimed that Obama Made the Teleprompter Popular (Replaces Speech With Reading From a Mirror in Front of a Camera). It is wrong by about half a century. Actually Herbert Hoover began to make the teleprompter popular for public speaking – when he was the first politician to use one way back in 1952. Back then it was a trade name, TelePrompTer, not the later generic teleprompter. (Autocue is another trade name that became generic).

What is a speech (or conference) teleprompter? It is a gizmo that displays the manuscript of a speech as scrolling text on viewing screens. Usually there are two screens, one
on either side of the speaker. Screens are light gray glass panels set at a 45-degree angle. They reflect an image (at eye level) from upward facing displays mounted on the floor. Current displays are unobtrusive, bright, flat-screen color lcd monitors. Before that they were CRT monitors in taller boxes. Originally the display was paper with a typed script scrolling between a pair of motorized rollers, (similar to a player piano).

You can see the screens (indicated by yellow arrows) when George Bush used a speech teleprompter to deliver his 2007 State of the Union Speech. By using a teleprompter, the speaker can look at his audience rather than repeatedly glancing down at his manuscript, and bobbing his head up and down, as shown on this Monty Python video. President Ronald Reagen used a teleprompter when he spoke to the House of Commons in 1983, and the British press dubbed it the “sincerity machine”.

What does the display look like to the speaker? They see their script (box with dashed yellow lines) superimposed on their view of the audience, as shown below in this over-the-shoulder shot of Sarah Palin speaking last year at the Republican National Convention. Look carefully at 1:43 in the video.

If you must use a teleprompter, then you need to practice with it. Reading from a script can lead to a monotonous, uniform,
monotone delivery, as shown here by T.J. Walker. According to Joey Asher the remedy is to vary your speed and add feeling. Just pretend that you are reading a story book to your child.

A teleprompter user also can just replace the up-and-down head bobbing with a side-to-side motion due to alternating between the screens. The audience may wonder if the speaker is watching his very own ghostly tennis game. Jeanette and Roy Henderson mention this problem on page 184 of their book, There’s no such thing as public speaking (make any presentation or speech as persuasive as a one-on-one conversation). They suggest you concentrate on turning your whole body naturally, not just your head.

If you want to practice reading a script with a teleprompter, then you can just go to the CuePrompter web site, upload your script, and watch it scroll as you read. You don’t need to buy anything.

How did Herbert Hoover make the TelePrompTer popular? He used one when he gave the keynote speech at the 1952 Republican Convention in Chicago. The operator had told him that he would stop the manuscript when he began ad-libbing, and start it again when he resumed. Hoover misunderstood, and when the text did not begin scrolling again he said to the microphone (and audience): “Go ahead, TelePrompTer, go ahead.” Lots of reporters covering the convention asked about the device. They wrote articles, and then the company got free publicity leading to a public speaking business.

Teleprompters started out as a way of prompting actors on live television. A six-page article in the Saturday Evening Post for September 14, 1957 titled “Sure Cure for Stage Fright” discussed how they also were being used both by politicians, and 375 of the nation’s top 500 businesses.

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