The Evolution of the Teleprompter

The year was 1950 and well-known Broadway actor Fred Barton Jr. had just been hired to perform in an exciting new medium known as “television.” But the opportunity also caused Barton concern. In theater, he could memorize his lines and simply repeat them for the same show every night. But on TV, which was largely performed live at the time, each episode required a new script. With his demanding Broadway schedule, where would Barton find time to learn his lines?

Using cue cards or a radio receiver placed in his ear were options, but Barton, who had an inventor’s mentality, sought something better. He had an idea for a device featuring multiple outlets with a synchronized display of actor’s lines. The actor and two higher-ups at Twentieth Century Fox built what was essentially a suitcase with holes cut into the sides, with the actor’s lines appearing on a motorized “roman scroll” visible through one of the holes. Paper scripts for the device had to be typed on a special typewriter.

Described as a “40-pound monster,” the primitive creation is credited as being one of the first teleprompters ever used, and its successors would forever change life for speakers around the globe. 


The Technology Evolves
It’s a long way from Barton’s crude teleprompter, detailed in Laurie Brown’s book, The Teleprompter Manual, to today’s ultra-light, portable devices that Toastmasters can use to turn laptop computers, iPhones or pocket PCs into temporary teleprompters.

Businesspeople use these new tools to read presentation text for video podcasts, to narrate Web-based training courses or as outlines when delivering project updates to far-flung teammates via webcam.

While the technology has evolved in leaps and bounds, its basic function and purpose remain the same: Teleprompters can be a speaker’s best friend because they create the illusion of spontaneity. The copy is projected in front of a camera lens, enabling the speaker to read the script without losing eye contact – and without audiences seeing the scrolling words. 


                    “Once you become experienced at using a teleprompter,
                    you’ll likely find it a freeing experience.”



In recent years, teleprompters have become an invaluable tool for politicians and leaders. They use such devices for all kinds of addresses. United States President Barack Obama is particularly nimble at using a teleprompter, which contributes to his eloquence as an orator.

However, without the proper practice or skill, using teleprompters can backfire, making speakers look stilted, overly choreographed and even phony. Most people greatly underestimate how difficult teleprompters are to master. Novices see how adept Obama or their local TV news anchors are with the technology and think reading from a screen will be a breeze. But experts say nothing is further from the truth: “It takes a lot of practice to read a script, sound natural and not look like a deer caught in the headlights,” says author Brown, a presentations-skills trainer. She reminds her clients that President Obama and TV anchors look so natural because they often use teleprompters many times each day, rather than once every few weeks or months. When most of us think of teleprompters, we envision the studio variety used by TV news anchors, or the type used by politicians and executives for live speeches. These work by using computers to scroll electronic text on monitors placed just above or below the camera lens. A special one-way mirror is angled to reflect the monitor text to the speaker. Because the reflected image of the text is reversed, the original text must also be reversed to compensate.

Depending on the features and specifications of studio-based teleprompters (such as monitor size), and whether prompting software is included, costs can run anywhere from $2,000 to $6,000 (U.S.).

With the so-called “presidential” version of a teleprompter, speakers addressing a live audience read from a glass plate that reflects text scrolling from a nearby monitor. Audiences can look through the glass plate without seeing the script.

Although most teleprompters still require a human operator to scroll the script, that time-honored practice is under siege. As a cost-cutting move, more TV stations are implementing self-operated teleprompters that enable on-air talent to control the speed and pace of their copy using foot petals. Although some might see this as the equivalent of patting yourself on the head while rubbing your tummy, most anchors say the systems are easy to master. 


Teleprompters Find New Uses
Fred Barton would likely look on in wonderment at the variety, size and portability of the teleprompter technology in use today.

If he were to sit with a marketing specialist who was creating a video podcast in her home office or a sales manager giving a motivational pep talk to her field staff via webcam, he might see them reading from large-font text scrolling on a nearby laptop computer – a set-up that mimics a professional teleprompter. Instead of reading verbatim from a script, these Toastmasters might instead be speaking from a bullet-point outline along with some written-out quotes. The text is scrolled using a mouse or a special wireless remote plugged into a USB port.

The availability of affordable teleprompter software has made such laptop adaptations more popular, with prices ranging from free to under $500. Two such applications are Visual Communicator from Adobe (www.adobe.com/products/visualcommunicator) and Prompt! software (www.movieclip.biz/prompt.html). The software enables you to import speech copy, set scrolling pace, adjust text font sizes and more.

The challenge in using a laptop as a teleprompter is ensuring that you look directly into the lens when speaking, not up or down. This requires positioning the laptop screen within the diameter of the camera lens, whether below or to the left or right, as well as using a long-enough camera lens and ensuring that speakers are standing far enough back from the camera. 


                    “Without the proper practice or skill, prompters also can backfire for
                    speakers, making them look stilted, overly choreographed and even phony.”


Many of today’s teleprompters are compatible with hand-held devices such as the iPhone or iTouch, which can be used in home offices as well as outdoor locations. While some might balk at the prospect of reading copy from a smart-phone screen, the all-capital-letters, 60-point text proves surprisingly easy to see when standing the required five to 10 feet away.

These systems work by loading the script into an iPhone or pocket PC, then attaching the hand-held device to a mounting “wing” just to the side or below mini-DV cameras (some vendors allow you to use a small LCD monitor as an option). The text is easily scrolled using another hand-held device, and the teleprompter software is built into the system.

For a look at how an iPhone-based prompter works, visit www.bodelin.com/proprompter. 


Becoming a Natural
Regardless of the size or shape of the teleprompter, there is one constant in a speaker’s use of the technology: It takes considerable time to make reading from a screen look natural.

To truly gain control of the teleprompter and transform it from a slightly awkward convenience to a tool of power, Brown says it requires “understanding enough small points to fill a book.” Point No. 1: If you’re new to teleprompters, avoid thinking you can just show up and read from a screen without looking stiff or inauthentic, says Tom Mucciolo, president of MediaNet, a New York presentation-skills coaching firm. It’s common for many of the executives he coaches to not even glance at their prompter text until the night before they speak. “When speakers don’t ‘own’ their content or are discovering it for the first time when reading it, their ability to look believable becomes a big problem.”

Knowing your content cold allows you to focus on a more natural delivery style, keep energy high and even go off-script to do things like tell stories, says Carmine Gallo, a former TV news anchor [and author of an article in this issue about video in presentations] who recommends speakers “commit as much of your content to memory as possible. That seems counterintuitive, but the more you internalize it, the less tied you are to the prompter, and the less it will look like you are reading and more like you are speaking from memory.”

Speakers new to teleprompters must practice “far more than they usually think is necessary,” Gallo says, if they want to become accomplished with the technology: “Until you get really good with prompters, I suggest practicing as much as two hours a day for a week in advance of a big presentation.”

Repeated rehearsal helps you hone things like speaking pace. “When people are just beginning to use teleprompters, they often slow down their speaking pace considerably, because they are focused on reading the words,” Gallo says. “Your audience will likely pick up on that and wonder why your pace is so methodical.” 


Working with Operators
If you’re using a human teleprompter operator, which is often the case when speaking live to a large conference group or using a studio prompter to record video, it’s important to rehearse with them so they get a sense of your speaking rhythms and pace. If you intend to ad-lib or go off-script, even if momentarily, let them know. “You don’t want to throw your prompter operator under the bus,” Brown says, “because they ultimately control your speaking fate.”

Getting your script to the operators with ample time before a presentation enables them to help you make changes that can improve readability. It might include inserting double lines between completed ideas to remind you to occasionally pause; changing formal language to more conversational language (using “it’s” rather than “it is”); and inserting directions in brackets or all capital letters, such as “TURN TO CAMERA 2” or “[tell story of making sale to difficult customer here].” If you’re more comfortable reading numbers that are spelled out, the operator might suggest changing “1,450” to “one thousand, four hundred and fifty.”

Finally, have a copy of your speech or note cards handy in case of a technology breakdown, unless you believe you have the content command of former U.S. president Bill Clinton. When his teleprompter famously malfunctioned during prepared remarks, Clinton continued speaking from memory – seamlessly, it appeared to the audience – until the prompter could get back on track. 


A Freeing Experience
Once you become adept at using a teleprompter, you’ll likely find it a freeing experience. Those who have worked with the devices for years comfortably stray from their scripts, adding personal stories, ad-libs and their own turns of phrase. Whether used in the field, home office or in the studio, the teleprompter then becomes an invaluable ally. 


Dave Zielinski is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Toastmaster






Tips for Taming the Teleprompter

Mastering the teleprompter is rarely as simple as it looks, and it’s easy to look stilted or insincere without applying the proper technique. Presentations-skill coach Laurie Brown offers these tips to skillfully use the teleprompter:

  • Lead the pace of the prompter.  Your reading speed should control the pace of the scroll.  If the prompter operator is leading, pause to allow them to slow down or speed up.
  • Don’t move your head from side to side as you read.  If you find yourself doing this, most likely the font size of the script on the prompter is wrong and sentences are too lengthy.  
  • Speak naturally.  Don’t just read the scrolling content.  Add small interjections or ad-libs where it feels natural, and inform your operator beforehand that you’ll be doing so.  If you want to use personal stories, tell them from memory – don’t read them verbatim from the script.
  • Check your eye contact on a monitor.  Make sure you’re reading off the center of the screen.  If you read too high, it may make you look condescending to an audience, with your nose up in the air.  If you read too low or look down, it may make you look angry.
  • Don’t stare.  Breathe and blink naturally.  Don’t be afraid to glance away from the prompter at times – it helps you look like you’re thinking instead of reading.
  • See the teleprompter as a person.  Envision a person you really like just behind the words.  This will help you humanize your voice and facial expressions.
  • Work on being still.  “Stillness on camera is essential,” says Brown.  “It doesn’t mean you are stiff or not emotive, but that your upper body remains static.” Speakers have a tendency to move in and out toward the camera, which “looks like a bad 3-D movie,” she says.
  • Above all, rehearse rigorously and internalize your content.  Many speakers think they can master prompter use with little or no practice.  Trying to wing it usually means disaster.  Also, make sure to rehearse out loud, because words sound different in your head than they do when spoken.  Rehearse with your operator so he or she gets to know your speaking pace.

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