President Obama and a long trail of other politicians, news anchors and executive speakers owe a considerable portion of their success to a man whose name they would never recognize. Engineer Hubert Schlafly was the creator of the Teleprompter, a device he developed in 1950 in partnership with Broadway actor Fred Barton, who wanted to do away with human prompters. Mr. Schlafly died this month at the age of 91, and anyone who has been compelled by circumstances to deliver a critical presentation before a skeptical audience should observe a moment of silence for the developer of the now nearly ubiquitous speaker’s aid.
We can best honor his memory, perhaps, by trying to do a better job with his machine. Often executives look somewhat stiff in front of the prompter, grasping a lectern in a death grip, tightening every muscle and glaring glassy-eyed at an unseen target. Here are a few tips that will help you appear more natural on screen or on stage when using the prompter:
- For television, the prompter should be mounted directly over the camera lens with a one-way mirror that projects the text directly in front of the lens. In this way you will look into the lens as you speak. Avoid setting up a prompter to the side of a camera.
- Keep your eyes on the line of text marked by the arrow, rather than trying to read from the top of the screen to the bottom (which is very noticeable in a close-up shot). The prompter operator’s job is always to keep your current line of text in the center of the screen (where the arrow appears); the text will roll up the screen as you read.
- Tilt and move your head in appropriate spots during the presentation as you would in natural conversation, rather than locking your noggin in place.
- Keep your hands up, elbows bent and gesture naturally. Keep gestures away from your face and small but emphatic for the TV screen, broader when speaking before a crowd.
- Remember to blink occasionally (but not frequently), rather than staring wide-eyed at the prompter screen.
- If possible, use multiple prompters (as the president does) so you can turn to the right or left to address various portions of the audience (or additional cameras). If you do, take a step back and turn your entire body, not just your head, so that you are engaging sections of your audience individually. If you are using a single prompter, don’t try to look away to the side—we’ll see you catching up with your place when you turn back around.
- When possible, use bullet points instead of word-for-word text on your prompter so that you can speak more casually and naturally. Of course, that means you will need to rehearse a bit more intently to prepare.
We are grateful that Mr. Schlafly led a full and successful life—and we can look upon his innovation as life support for us as we make our way through 10 or 20 minutes of speaker’s palpitations.
— Steve Friedman is the director of marketing communications at Airfoil Public Relations, a high tech PR agency with offices in Detroit and Silicon Valley.