4 teleprompter guidelines for novice and veteran speakers

The technology helps politicians and newscasters speak fluidly to the audience without repeatedly looking down at a prepared text, but it’s not as simple as just reading a screen.

There it is: your entire presentation, sitting in front of you on a teleprompter like a warm, comfortable, digital security blanket.

Politicians use them. Television hosts use them. Why shouldn’t you?

The most direct answer is that speaking from a teleprompter ishard. If most speakers who read from a prepared script sound like they’re reading from a script, imagine how much tougher it is to read one from two small panels of glass, flanked on the speaker’s left and right sides, located feet apart from one another.

Because it’s difficult for most speakers to develop a rapport with their audiences while using a teleprompter, we typically discourage their use. In limited circumstances, though, the teleprompter can be a useful tool. (An example: a high-stakes event at which the precision of your words—which will carry to a much broader audience outside the room—matters more than the connection you forge with the live audience inside the room.)

President Ronald Reagan, 1988, with a traditional “presidential” teleprompter setup (via Reagan Library)

Consider these guidelines when using a teleprompter:

1. You control the pace: Teleprompters typically display four to six lines of text at a time. Most presenters prefer to have the line they’re speaking in the middle of the glass. If it’s too close to the top, they rush to say it before the line disappears (teleprompters scroll from bottom to top); if it’s at the bottom, they worry that their next line won’t arrive in time. To make sure your lines appear exactly where you want them, practice several times with the person scrolling the teleprompter for you. This part is crucial: The teleprompter operator should follow your pace, not the other way around. When you slow down, the prompter’s scroll should slow down. When you speed up, so should your text. Rehearsing will help the operator get familiar with your flow and give you confidence that you are in sync with one another. During your rehearsal, make sure you’re comfortable with the font size and panel height, which can be adjusted.

2. Avoid the ping pong match: Because most teleprompters have a left and right panel, speakers tend to turn their heads back and forth in a predictable manner as if watching a fast-moving ping pong match. Dallas Prompters, a company that specializes in the technology, advises speakers, “Push yourself to stay with each panel for longer than (at first) feels comfortable; use the start of a new sentence—or, even better, introduction of a new topic—as a reason to change the direction of your gaze.”

3. Consider adding extemporaneous holes: There are advantages to leaving your script occasionally to add brief portions of extemporaneous speech. Make sure you clearly mark the script (“PROMPTER STOP – TELL CLIENT STORY”), and practice those moments with the operator in advance. The operator will stop scrolling upon seeing that cue, and your next scripted line will be waiting for you when you finish the story. One note: Inserting a planned extemporaneous hole is different from extended spontaneous ad-libs, which can confuse the operator and leave you staring at the wrong part of the script when you’re ready for it again.

4. Mark the script: You can add clear emphasis and reminder cues, just as you would use in a paper script. Because teleprompters can malfunction (always bring a printed copy of your speech with you to the stage.), there’s one additional mark you should insert—page endings. Because there are no clear markings of page endings on a prompter (all the words run as continuous text), add a mark such as three backslashes (///) to signify to yourself that you’ve reached a page break. Every time you see those three backslashes on the prompter, subtly turn the page on your paper copy. That way, if the prompter dies, you will be on the correct printed page can find your place quickly.

You can also use prompters for brief bulleted memory triggers rather than a complete text, which allows for a more extemporaneous style.

More commonly, you’ll find that approach used with “confidence monitors,” or TV screens mounted to the stage floor that contain your brief bullets, often alongside an image of the PowerPoint slide being projected behind you. Look closely at the video of many TED Talks, and you’ll see them at the foot of the stage.

You can see confidence monitors at the front of the stage in Amy Cuddy’s 2012 TED Talk.

You might also use a blended teleprompter approach that contains bullets and a few scripted sections if you’d like to read a few quotes or passages verbatim.

Brad Phillips is president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training. He is author of the Mr. Media Training Blog, (where a version of this article originally appeared) and two books: ” The Media Training Bible” and “ 101 Ways to Open a Speech.”

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