Here is an interesting piece by Nana Ariel at Aeon about the history and ‘meaning’ of teleprompters:

Jess Oppenheimer, the producer of the TV show I Love Lucy (1951-57), filed the patent for a mirror extension that reflected the printed text on a transparent board in front of the camera, which created the conditions for the speaker to look straight into the lens. This version rapidly became a favourite for newscasters, and the best way to deliver political speeches to large audiences.

Dwight D Eisenhower was the first US president to address the nation with the aid of a teleprompter, and tried it out during the 1952 presidential campaign (although he awkwardly reproached the machine during the speech for moving too slowly).

The so-called ‘presidential’ teleprompter, consisting of two flat panels on either side of a stage, grew in popularity after the 1960s. In its transparent form, it enables speakers to shift their gaze from side to side during the speech, to convey a sense of uninterrupted contact with their listeners. It also tricks the audience’s vision: the clear design reveals the text to the speaker’s eyes but hides it from the spectators.

Then along came computers:

The computerised teleprompter arrived in the 1980s, and with it, software that eliminated the need for a manual operator. The text could now be controlled remotely, and edited up to the last minute, which significantly accelerated the pace of political speech-craft. More recently, voice recognition has enabled the written words to progress at the pace of the unfolding speech; eventually, it could entirely release speakers from the mercy of their operators.

What could go wrong with THAT?

Lately, the teleprompter has reached a new phase. During one of his campaign rallies in October 2016, Donald Trump stopped mid-flow, pointed at the screen, and said: ‘By the way, these teleprompters haven’t been working for the last 20 minutes. And I actually like my speech better without teleprompters.’ He reached for one of the transparent boards and broke it.

Watch how this worked on the day:

Nice job.

Trump’s act shattered the tacit agreement between the speaker and listener, and publicly exposed the teleprompter magic trick. By stubbornly rejecting the device for most of his campaign, he drew a contrast between the polished, orchestrated routines of his political rivals, and his own unscripted, ungovernable talking and tweeting.

Even when he was cajoled into using a teleprompter, Trump often diverted from the text, added comments, improvised, joked, and subverted all the rules of formal speech.

Really? How did that actually work in technical terms? Examples?

Obama, usually an outstanding orator, found himself at a loss on the few occasions when his teleprompter failed.


Plenty of other examples out there.

Cracks have appeared in the teleprompter paradigm. It’s at risk from a growing distrust of intermediaries, filters, reputable third-parties of all kinds. This doesn’t mean audiences won’t enjoy the magic show now and again. Wearable devices and implants could extend the self and its capacities, and are likely to reshape the relations between speech, truth and authenticity once again.

But the point is that what makes something believable is not grounded in any inherent fixed essence; rather, it is a flexible performance shaped by the changing material and cultural forms we grant it.

Only at Harvard might we encounter the ‘teleprompter paradigm’. Best to tiptoe quietly around it.

This piece misses the key point about teleprompters. Namely that no-one other than (perhaps) the US President should ever use one.

Huh? Why not? They help a speaker have authenticity, while being ‘polished’ and ‘orchestrated’ (#mixedmetaphorhorror):

This is an extract from my book Speeches for Leaders:

How does a leader keep good eye-contact with the audience and so make a speech an exercise in communication, not talking?

Much the best way is to give a speech from short notes. The speaker knows what s/he wants to say, and says it. That requires skill and confidence, and a willingness to take risks. Something unwise or annoying might be said inadvertently, a joke might go awry and cause offence, or something vital might be left out.

These days leaders don’t like risks. They know that their ‘mistakes’ or gaffes can race round the world on YouTube or Twitter before the speech is even finished.

So they try to create a sense of engagement with the audience by using gadgets to avoid the appearance of talking from a written script.  A teleprompter is a glass screen in front of the speaker on which the words of the speech scroll down. The speaker can see the words, but the audience can not.

The idea seems sound. It allows the speaker maintain much better eye-contact with the audience rather than keep looking down at her/his notes.

President Obama often uses two teleprompters. This gives him maximum options for having sustained eye-contact with people across the audience to help make a point more impactful. I have seen other speakers congratulating themselves for having their own portable teleprompter, an iPad with an app that automatically scrolls the speech down the screen.

However, what the teleprompter (or iPad) giveth in enhanced eye-contact, it taketh away in the form of hugely reduced spontaneity/conversation. By using a teleprompter a speaker is trapped with the words served up as they scroll down the small screen. The speaker is reading out a speech, not speaking from the heart.

If the speaker starts any improvising, departing from the prepared script, a mess can quickly ensue. Once it all gets out of synch, it’s difficult for the teleprompter operator and speaker quickly together to re-find the right place and get the speech back on track. While that is happening, the speaker is left horribly exposed – and looks ridiculous.

YouTube has vivid examples of President Obama himself getting in an embarrassing tangle to the point of grinding to a total halt when faced with unexpected teleprompter dis-synchronisation.

I watched a live Internet feed of a speaker giving a speech I had helped write. The speaker was using a teleprompter. I was struck at just how “dead” the words became. The speaker lost all usual liveliness as he trudged through the text, with no hope at all of friendly improvisation to match the mood of the audience and the occasion …

Emotional warmth and human touch? Too risky. Forget it.

Right at the heart of successful public speaking is the idea of Control. The speaker needs to command the room and so shape the unfolding relationship between himself/herself and the audience during the speech. A teleprompter outsources too much of that control to the technology scrolling down the words and the people operating it.

Look at what can go wrong in real life during a speech and how difficult it is even for a US President to adjust accordingly.

A teleprompter screen can crash to the floor:

Or somehow it all gets out of synch:

Far better to use a simple text of well prepared speaking-notes, right? What can go wrong with THAT?

Haha. Details.

Even if the teleprompter process itself does not malfunction, something else can happen during a speech that throws everything off course. Watch closely what happens here:

The Presidential Seal falls to the floor. The President of course has to stop and work out how to respond. He does it well with extended ad-libs that amuse the audience.

Why does this go on for as long as it does, slightly awkwardly? The teleprompter operators behind the scenes are frantically trying to work out what’s happened and when, then reboot the flow of words back to where the interruption happened. The President (who makes several speeches a day) may have literally no idea of what the rest of the speech is meant to say: he is 100% dependent on the words reappearing on the screen in the right place, and until then he has to try to keep control while acutely anxious of the PR disaster that he faces if those words do not appear pretty damn soon.

* * * * *

The other key point is that a speech written for a speaker to use from a teleprompter needs to be written differently. Because the teleprompters can convey a greater sense of ‘conversation’ when all works well, the drafting tactics for emphasising pauses and light touch in the draft speech are all the more important. I doubt if there are any speechwriters in the world outside the USA able to do this well, or who even grasp the problems involved.

Plus of course the teleprompter operators themselves need to be in complete control of the flow of words. If a line in a speech gets a big laugh or sustained applause, the flow of words needs to stop until that subsides.

Even then a smart speaker may want to add some improvised words to build on the warmth that the speech has generated. That makes it almost impossible for anyone other than highly trained teleprompter operators familiar with both speaker and speech to keep track of what’s happening in real time, and have the speech ready to resume on the screen at just the right place.

Note too that if it turns out that some parts of the speech are not going down as well as the speaker hoped or need adjusting in the light of the audience’s reaction so far, there is no scope for leaving out some passages.

I watched a politician give a speech I’d helped write. In it there was a passage as he’d requested on the Scottish independence issue. On the day actually during the speech he left that section out – it added nothing to the main message of the speech that was otherwise working well.

In other words, the speaker kept control of his message and his command of the occasion and therefore his own reputation. It’s impossible to do this with a teleprompter.

* * * * *


If you have a team of front-rank speechwriters supported by the world’s best teleprompter operators, using a teleprompter may be OK. But even then it can go embarrassingly wrong. So always have the speech notes with you, beautifully laid out, just in case of some or other calamity.

If you are not the US President, never use a teleprompter.