Teleprompter Blues

What fascinated me about all the convention speeches in the last few days is the Harry Houdini part — the teleprompter. There were three, of course, surrounding the podium. Each speaker turned methodically from one to the other. Center – right – center – left – center – right, etc. Once you figured out what was going on, it was almost comic.

What’s wrong with these things is that they hold less than a sentence of text. So it’s impossible to get up a good head of steam when you are speaking. If you’re not a great public speaker you inevitably get into a sing-song rhythm, reading off a line or two as it appears before you and waiting for the next one. Carly Fiorina was a classic example. Utterly monotonous delivery, the same rhythm for every sentence. Most of the minor speakers, Republican or Democratic, fell into this trap. Combined with the fact that many of the speeches sounded suspiciously like they were written by the same person, the result was nothing if not B O R I N G.

Using a teleprompter well is obviously a skill — you want to look like you’re speaking off the cuff, and the machine almost completely prevents that. In a way, it’s akin to Powerpoint, which some have blamed as a bane on American business. If you use these pieces of technology the result is competence — but zero personality, zero energy. It’s all about sticking to the script.

I’m also struck by the implicit collusion between the networks and the conventions in carefully hiding the teleprompters. This takes work and preparation. Shots have to be designed to conceal these things — heck they’re right in the speaker’s eye lines and have to be. But the networks want to conceal them as bad as the candidates do. The more I think about that, the more it worries me.

Think what the convention would be like if you saw the teleprompter in every shot. What would happen if you were conscious, throughout every speech, that the speaker was reading, line by line? I was at an awards ceremony recently where the teleprompter was quite visible to the live audience, and every time I looked at it, it totally changed my sense of the event.

The illusion is that the person talking is speaking extemporaneously. The reality is that they are just reading a script. Once you grok that the whole thing changes. But nobody wants you to see it. Not the speaker and not the media. Is that reporting?

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5 Comments on “Teleprompter Blues”

  1. Mark Raudonis Says:

    As a working professional, I certainly know what a teleprompter is. As a “home viewer”, I can NEVER remember seeing the visible prompter in the shot as I did during Sarah Palin’s speech.

    I can only think that there was a sympathetic Democrat directing the coverage who wanted the “truth to be known”.


  2. Frank Reynolds Says:

    A poli-sci professor in college told me that Eisenhower was the first president to use a teleprompter, and he apparently would just say anything the speechwriters threw on it, even if he didn’t know what was coming. My professor said that if you go back and look at the Eisnehower speech where he said the famous line “I will go to Korea!” (quoted at the beginning of Altman’s MASH), when he says the line he looks confused, as if he’s never heard this line before and is thinking “I’m going to Korea??”

  3. Liam Stephens Says:

    Obama losing his teleprompter…

  4. Pasha Says:

    As Bill Maher noted, at least Obama can read. Early footage of President Bush shows him holding “My Pet Goat” while Ms. Daniels’ 2nd grade class read it to him.

    “Who is your favorite political philospher?”

    Bush answers, “Jesus Christ.”

  5. Macie Says:

    Obama and his Teleprompter, lol. Now the Republicans are making wisecracks in the primaries about Obama’s prompters, while reading the wisecracks from a teleprompter.

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