What does the teleprompter have in common with kleenex, masonite, and bubble wrap? It’s a trademarked name that became generic. It’s been around that long. Much of the content that we take for granted when we turn on the TV—from newsrooms to presidential speeches—are possible only with the aid of a teleprompter.
Read on to find out how to use a teleprompter and speak like a professional!
Just for the sake of argument, suppose that you get a phone call as soon as you wake up, telling you that your team landed you a huge media appearance that will send your company’s sales to the moon.
All that’s required is that you show up and deliver a long speech reading from a teleprompter.
You may not know what to think the first time you see one. Do you look into it? Around it? Where’s the camera? Are you supposed to stick your head inside of it? It’s got some hood over it like a baby carriage, but you don’t hear anything crying.
“Where’s the camera?” you ask.
A scurrying staff member hastily gestures to a screen that has letters on it. That can’t be. It’s a screen with words. Where’s the lens?
That screen is actually a sheet of beam-splitting glass, which is really just a fancy way of telling you that it’s a two-way mirror. On your side, you see the words. On the other side, all the camera sees is you. We discuss more about how this works in the following sections. For now, you need to worry about looking good when it’s time to go live.
How hard can it be? You read the words, your smiling and babbling face gets beamed all over the country, and your company rakes in a cool billion next year. Done.
Not so fast.
Reading and speaking are two different things. You’re going to be doing one but wanting to look like you’re doing the other. That’s been one of the snags that haunts users of teleprompters to this day: If they look like they’re reading, the audience will find it easier to check out mentally. There’s something about knowing that you’re not being talked to when you thought you were that’s a turn-off.
So you want to look good, sound good, and come across as if you’re speaking entirely off the cuff—all that stuff you learned in the last round of media coaching.
Here’s a few tips to get you looking and sounding like a teleprompter veteran from the get-go.
#1. Know the script
Hello, duh? That tip almost goes without saying. Well, apparently most of the population has missed the memo. The sheer number of people that show up to read in front of a teleprompter without having seen the script is staggering but also expected—anxiety or arrogance is usually to blame.
There’s something about your neural pathways that benefit from at least a preview of what you’re going to be reading. By looking at your script beforehand, the teleprompter becomes less of a crutch and more of a reminder. Teleprompters are not immune to quirks and issues, so you don’t want to lean on it as a crutch more than necessary. If your crutch slips, you fall, and so does your media appearance.
Plus you’ll be more free to be natural instead of laser-focused on the words precariously sliding along a sheet of glass.
#2. Practice reading (ideally off of the teleprompter)
Reading from a teleprompter won’t be like reading off of a sheet of paper, so if you could get permission to be in the studio and rehearse with the teleprompter, that would be great. You need to do this days before the shoot where possible. If it isn’t, as in our imaginary scenario of an on-the-spot call to speak, squeeze in whatever practice you can by reading off of the screen of your computer from a distance.
#3. Own what you’re reading
One speaker reflected on his early childhood when he was learning to ride a bicycle. He had a set of training wheels. He knew he was ready for the training wheels to come off when neither of them would touch the ground. If you lean too heavily on the teleprompter, you will sound like you’re reading and that’s how you lose an audience. Absorb, assimilate, own what you’re reading so that when you go live, you’re speaking from the heart and the teleprompter is just there to catch you if you wobble.
#4. Change your rhythm
Make a deal with yourself that you will change the rhythm at which you speak each sentence. Change the speed. Change the pitch. Put emphasis on key words of great importance. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of reading each sentence with the same sing-song rhythm. Change it up to stay interesting and sound natural. Sound the way your media coach taught you to sound when giving a speech.
#5. Be a little extra
Be yourself, but throw in a little extra. Inject a little more energy than you’re used to into your reading. The act of being on live camera mutes your energy, so by mustering some “padding,” you’ll be right where you need to be when it’s show time.
#6 Befriend the prompt operator
Well, at least chat for a few minutes. Your time in front of the camera will really be a tango between you two, so if you can feel each other out and get on the same page, you won’t lose each other when the words and the cameras are rolling.
You’re a human being, not C-3P0. Smiling will loosen you up and any gaffes or bumbles can be gracefully sidestepped with a smile. You’ll feel much better for it.
#8 Eliminate eye movement by formatting the text
Unless you specifically order and set up the prompter, this won’t be your problem. A good technician will already have this under wraps. But if you don’t format your script on the prompter to be narrow, your eyes will move left to right and people will figure out that you’re reading.
Another good reason to meet and greet with your stage crew: resolve this sort matter before it’s time to air.
Now, that was your 90 mph primer. We’re going to break the teleprompter down even more.
Where Did The Teleprompter Come From?
Once upon a time, folks in front of cameras relied on cue cards to shepherd their thought process. Eventually this was replaced with a scroll of paper that had the script printed on it and mounted next to the camera. A technician rolled the paper for the reader. The whole thing was automated in due time to free up hands.
These solutions were good and well, but there’s something about the camera that you can’t fake looking into it. If your eyes are even slightly off of the lens, the viewer can tell and the simulation of eye contact is lost. The challenge was to get the words—and the speaker’s eyes—in front of the camera without blocking the lens—this is where the teleprompter comes in.
So How Does A Teleprompter Work?
The riddle was solved with glass. The prompt was mounted below the camera and a sheet of glass would reflect the image of the script to the reader. This meant that the script had to be printed backwards for it to appear correctly. The camera sat behind the glass and saw only the speaker who was finally looking directly into the lens. This is the core mechanic of how a teleprompter works. Every feature that followed has merely been a variation on this.
How Many Different Kinds of Teleprompters Are There?
Odds are that this is the kind you’ll speak in front of. If you’re a speaker or a top-tier manager, this is what will get used for that outgoing company video message or that next orientation video. But they aren’t one-size-fits-all. They need to be carefully selected to match the camera and the on-premises AV system.
There’s only one key difference between this teleprompter and the one we just covered: Where the glass is mounted. It’s good for a president to have some eye contact, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, with the audience. So a presidential teleprompter has two sheets of glass mounted on thin poles that will reflect the president’s speeches. When the president looks up and to the left or the right, he sees his words. The audience just sees their leader looking out at them.
These aren’t much different from the presidential setup. The display can be set up at an angle on the floor or hung from the rigging in the back of the room. Not bad, but it makes the speaker look glued to the first two rows of seats.
No matter which teleprompter you use, all professional prompter software should be capable of reversing the text so that it appears normally when reflected off of the glass. There will also likely be a remote control and ways of starting, stopping, and adjusting the speed at which the text scrolls.
The really high-tech end of models will recognize your speech and scroll along with you as you read. The rest of the world’s prompters are an exercise in pacing yourself. You don’t want to read so slowly that the prompter leaves you behind, nor do you want to read so quickly that your pauses are excessively long.
When would you use a teleprompter?
No matter how great your delivery and subject matter, the absence of eye contact can strongly detract from the appeal of what you have to say. A teleprompter keeps you and your viewers connected and provides a safety net if your memory lapses on you.
And face it—long chunks of text are difficult to memorize for anyone. The usual tools recommended in media and presentation training such as PowerPoint or notecards can be distracting. With a teleprompter, there is literally nothing between you and your listeners. But the more of your speech you can memorize, the better.
When wouldn’t you use a teleprompter?
Teleprompters are nifty and their makers know it. If you want nifty, you’re gonna pay nifty. There just might not be room in the event’s budget for one of these machines.
Another factor is the impact that teleprompters tend to have on the quality of a speaker’s delivery. Even very capable speakers are at risk of slipping into flat droning when reading off a prompter. Unless you know how to read in a way that makes your speech sound improvised, a prompter will literally change the quality of your delivery. And then, sometimes, teleprompters are an event’s SOP and there’s no getting around it—The decision is made for us. Be preemptive and bet that you will need to know how to use a teleprompter.
Teleprompters are here to stay, like any product whose brand name has come to define the object. With video becoming the preferred tool for marketers, the odds are high that you will end up using one in a future media appearance.
As long as you make proper preparation—whether with a media coach or on your own—as part of using a teleprompter, you’ll do just fine.
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