The following post was adapted from Vern Oakley’s book Leadership in Focus.
Teleprompters are a mixed blessing. Technically, they’re meant to help on-camera performances by allowing the speaker to read from a prepared script. Using monitors and one-way mirrors, teleprompters display the text on an eye line so the speaker can keep his or head up rather than looking down at a written page. But often you’re so busy reading the words—there’s little room for you to be yourself in the process.
Even the most seasoned performers struggle with the teleprompter. Academy Award winner J. K. Simmons is a great example. In 2015 he won the Oscar for best supporting actor in Whiplash. He gave a very heart-rending, off-the-cuff acceptance speech that was dripping with conviction and passion. The following year, when he introduced the best supporting actress nominees, his performance was not as heartfelt. The effort Simmons put into reading off the screen zapped the personality out of his performance. Simmons even told a red carpet reporter before entering the building, “I hope I don’t screw up reading the teleprompter!” This guy has decades of training and an Academy Award under his belt—and he still feared the teleprompter.
Teleprompters are anathema to actors and when leaders use them, their communications people usually aren’t happy with the results. One such person is Tina Orlando.
“I don’t think I’ve ever really achieved a decent performance using a teleprompter,” says Orlando. “You have to be very, very accomplished, and very practiced and comfortable to make it work. Most CEOs aren’t because they’ve never committed the time to doing it. You can always see that they’re reading which automatically reduces the impact of that presentation at least 50%. People see CEOs reading teleprompters and they think, ‘talking puppet’.”
Part of the problem is that we subconsciously lower the bar when someone is using the teleprompter. We expect a certain level of inauthenticity to creep in when someone is reading off the screen, because it is nearly impossible to speak naturally. When leaders and their communication team operate with this belief, they’re suddenly willing to settle for “good enough.” They’re more likely to check off the box that the communication is done, but are they really communicating in the true sense of the word? Are they actually making an impression, moving people, connecting and engaging with them?
In many organizations, those in charge of communications favor the teleprompter for one simple reason: using one seems easier, more time efficient. They sit down, write a statement, get all concerned parties to sign off on the contents and bring in the teleprompter. I’ve worked with one CEO who has gone along with this strategy but like Tina, was not a fan. After wrapping a teleprompter shoot with him one day, he told me, “Hey Vern, I just realized something. If I cut the video budget, I don’t have to do any more of these!” He got a twinkle in his eye just thinking about cutting the video budget so he’d never have to be uncomfortable in front of a teleprompter again.
I can understand where he was coming from. Speaking using a teleprompter can be stressful, but even just a little preparation will let you take a deep breath and relax.
There will be times when leaders will need to depend on a teleprompter—however unpopular they might be—if they have to deliver concise messages. Sometimes they are a fact of life—like paying taxes and going to the dentist—so this post is devoted to helping you find the best way to work with these devices while still being yourself on camera.
Teleprompter operators are specialists who use a computer and software to control the text. The operator can program the font, letter size, text speed, and amount of text on the screen at any given time. They can also insert pauses, underline key words, make a series of words bold so it reads as a single phrase, and arrange the number of words on a line to help the speaker’s pace.
A good teleprompter operator has no need to see you on camera; in most cases they are somewhere in the back of the room—or in another room entirely. All they care about is how you sound through their earphones. They also provide an invaluable backup for the soundman or mixer if you are recording a message that will be edited and distributed later on.
The best teleprompter operators are tactful, patient characters. If you ask their opinion on the substance of your script, many operators can help smooth out lines to make them sound more in the style of the way you normally talk off camera. This comes in handy if the director is occupied dealing with other matters. The teleprompter software allows the operator to make almost instantaneous changes in your text, eliminating hard to pronounce words and tongue-twisting phrases.
Many teleprompter operators are so valued for their ability to help people speak at their best, they are hired over and over again by CEOs, television personalities, and politicians, no matter the location.
Making The Most of a Necessary Evil
The biggest problem with teleprompters is that they often impede leaders from being themselves on camera. They just don’t leave much room for your personality to come through when you’re reading your exact script off a screen. This is especially the case when the leader doesn’t spend time getting familiar with the script before filming. Many CEOs want to show up, read the words (which unfortunately they may be seeing for the first time), and call it a day. That approach doesn’t help anyone—not the leader or the viewer. But teleprompters do have their place in filming video if paired with even just a little preparation.
Nobody can walk onto a film set and rattle off a great teleprompter performance on the first try. Remember those deer-in-the-headlights actors presenting at the Academy Awards. Even revered performers struggle with the teleprompter, so you can’t expect yourself to nail it on the first or second take. It takes patience and lots of self-forgiveness before you can truly find your groove reading from a screen.
Also think about the two most common ways leaders use the teleprompter and what will be most useful for your situation. Sometimes you’ll be required to read your whole script word-for-word, but if that’s not the case, it might work better to use it as a notepad to help sequence your ideas, jog your thinking, or remember facts and figures.
If you fall into a situation where you have to use a teleprompter for your entire on-camera presentation (perhaps your legal team requires you to word something exactly right, for example), give yourself a break. Be aware that like any skill, you have to put in some real time to learn the craft. Most CEOs tell me that after a half dozen sessions, they start feeling more comfortable. And after a dozen, they have found their own rhythm.
Corp comm expert Jon Pepper points out that the purpose of these presentations “are more along the lines of bulletins or major announcements where you have to be very sure that you get particular wording or particular phrasing in a certain order where lawyers or financial disclosure is involved. You can’t risk saying the wrong thing so a teleprompter is required.”
Just remember that if you lean on the teleprompter as a crutch, you’ll need more time to find your rhythm in front of the lens. If you’re forced to read from the teleprompter, it’s still critical that you internalize your message so you can truly own it. That means really understanding the key points, phrases and words, and deciding how much weight to put on each one.
Also, take heart: Even if you’re going to be the only person that viewers see in your video, the wonders of film can help make the process easier for you. For starters, since this isn’t a live speech or broadcast, your director can work with you trying multiple takes until your message is convincing.
If you’re reading from a teleprompter, it’s critical that you take the time to practice and internalize your message. That scrolling text will only hurt you if you rely on it completely. No amount of editing can make a stiff performance lively and powerful.
Here are some other key points to keep in mind when using the teleprompter.
Spend Some Quality Time Going Over Your Message with Someone You Trust to Give You Honest Feedback.
You can get a lot done in a matter of minutes. Does the writing style of the message resemble the way you talk naturally? Practice out loud. Aside from building your confidence, it is a great way to find and remove tongue twisters. Sometimes just shifting two clauses around or adding a listener-friendly term can make your message more conversational. If legal is involved, make it clear they need to help you craft a message that sounds like it was written by a human. If your task is to deliver some bad news to people, show some empathy. It costs you nothing and builds your image as a good leader.
Have a Hard Copy of Your Message on Hand during Your Performance.
Ideally you’d review the printed script before filming and mark important points you’d like to emphasize. If you don’t do this in advance, it should be the first thing you do when you arrive on set. Work with your director and your trusted team to underline key points, massage words so they’re in your voice, and cut unnecessary info. Your teleprompter operator can quickly update the text on screen. And highlighting key points on paper first will help you remember to emphasize certain ideas when the camera rolls.
Meet Your Teleprompter Operator before the Shoot.
Let the operator know he or she is important and you trust them to help you get through the shoot in one piece. A little humility goes a long way with any member of the film crew, but the teleprompter operator is your lifeline.
Add in Some Time to Rehearse on the Teleprompter.
Reading from a screen will feel unnatural so it’s worth taking at least a few minutes to warm up before filming. You can also use this time to make sure the font and the size of the letters are easy to read.
During a Teleprompter Shoot:
Remember: Leaders Lead and Operators Follow.
Teleprompter operators never set the pace of your message—you do. You have more control than you may think. It’s important to understand that the teleprompter operator is the cart and you are the horse. Their job is to follow along at your pace. Often people think the teleprompter is arbitrarily rolling and they need to keep up with it. They don’t realize the operator is actually moving at the pace set by the speaker.
Vary Your Pace and Volume.
By following some simple steps, you can sound less like a machine and more like a human. Alter your volume now and then, sometimes louder, sometimes softer. Aside from pausing to breathe, you can also pause at the end of important phrases to give your viewers time to ingest your thoughts. Vary the pace of your message to emphasize key points or set a mood. You might consider a slower read if you are sharing facts and figures. Again, remember the teleprompter is following you and not the other way around. A good operator will expect variation of pace, tone, emphasis, and will compensate.
Keep Your Eyes Still.
Keeping your eyes still while reading is an acquired skill, but you and your director can easily minimize the perception that you’re a reading robot by using a few simple tricks. I move the teleprompter far away from the speaker so his or her eyes don’t need to move when reading the screen. I also put fewer words on each line, with larger text, so they can easily read the far-away screen without squinting. On your end, try to move your head and use your hands (in moderation) to emphasize your points. Shift your weight from one leg to the other. If your body is moving, your eye movements will not be as noticeable.
Ultimately, the biggest keys to mastering the teleprompter are patience and forgiveness. Understand that it’s a tool, and like any tool, it takes work before you can master it. The teleprompter is not an easy way out of having to prep. I’d argue that it takes even more work to communicate authentically using a teleprompter than with any other communication format because it puts you in such an unnatural position.
Allergan executive chairman Paul Bisaro’s teleprompter work got much better after he learned to trust the process and give it time. “I was very rigid when I started.
Then I got the flow of it and I realized I didn’t actually have to say every word and that I could take a breath and I could do a few things,” he said. “As I settled down and decided not to worry so much about getting every word precise but to get some feeling into the message, I think I got better at it. But it took time. It took a lot of time. I’d say years, actually.”
Give yourself a break. If you’re putting in the work to get better, know that’s all you can do and trust that you will improve with effort.