Obama and the Teleprompter

First, Barack Obama is the probable nominee because he is a great communicator. In oratory and rhetoric. I even named him the Top Communicator of 2006, and look where speaking got him!

But why doesn’t he learn to use the teleprompter well? A mystery.

In an earlier post I was roundly criticized because I didn’t give him a 10 out of 10 for his famous speech after his Iowa primary victory. He was good, but not great – purely because he looked at his teleprompter paddles for 4 to 5 seconds each, head going back and forth like a metronome. I would have thought he would have learned by now, but no. So I’m posting on it, because it’s not hard to use teleprompters well.

So here after his North Carolina speech, you can literally see him with no teleprompter, reading a script for 35 seconds before the prompter kicks in. And then his eyes almost light up at 38 seconds, and teleprompter gaze locks on as he goes into his 4 second metronome routine.

Now this is not a major communication flaw with him, as he is outstanding at oratorical flourish and inspirational words and vocal rhythm. And he is learning fast to be spontaneous and humorous. He’s an impressive communicator – witness his success. In comparison to John McCain – well, there is not much. (Here’s John McCain using the Teleprompter – much worse in one of the early primaries. Here he is using one through the lens prompter paddle, where Obama always uses two paddles. But McCain has been told, and has learned and now reads his speeches usually, and stiffly.)

It is also true that not that many people care about Obama’s teleprompter stiffness. I’ve mentioned it to dozens and they don’t even notice! But I do think at the unconscious level people do notice, and it takes away from smooth, natural and confident impact.

So if you know Barack – tell him there’s a solution: as follows…

Here’s the solution to Teleprompter Gaze Stiffness:

Simply put, have five focal points when you have two prompter paddles – and three focal points when you have one prompter paddle (or through the lens prompter.) In Obama’s two paddle situation, he has the two paddles for two focal points, the third focal point is centered between the two paddles, and the other two focal points are to the far left and far right of the paddles. Then he just learns to pick up his sentences by reading at the paddles for a few seconds, and gaze at the other focal points as he finishes the sentence, and goes back to the paddle to pick up the next sentence or two.

Don’t mean to get to detailed in Teleprompter Training, but it’s not very difficult to learn it – takes very little practice. And once done, you can ‘appear’ to be speaking to the entire audience – not just stiffly reading and moving your head from side to side – 4 seconds by 4 seconds.

Watch Obama at his next speech. It will be 4×4 – until he learns. And I have a hunch he will learn.

If you want more info on the detail of using Teleprompters, you might pick up The Teleprompter Manual by Laurie Brown. It’s good, although I think she should have emphasized the ‘focal point’ issue much more. That’s where the rubber meets the road in using teleprompters well.

But – better yet not to use them at all. Learn to use notes, be spontaneous, and don’t read speeches. Just last week I had a client who was told he had to use a teleprompter for a major speech, and he complied – against his wishes. The teleprompter operator lost control, he got off track and distracted, and said “Never again!” to teleprompters.

8 comments on “Obama and the Teleprompter

  1. The fact that he had such a huge task during his campaign, it should have been enough to make anyone buckle. However, Obama faced his audiences with confidence that had amazed the people. With self-disciplined focus, he talked about his plans to bring about Hope and Change to the country. Without the help from video production facilities, people realized that it must have been the magic of the man himself.

  2. Thanks Steve – there’s a lot of buzz about his extensive use of the Teleprompter since I posted this. I’m amazed he isn’t learning how to use it better. I guess I’ll post on it again if it dominates in his speech next Tuesday. Appreciate your wisdom.

  3. Interesting article. I’ve worked in TV production for years, and I’m very aware of prompters (mostly the “behind-the-lens type). So it drives me crazy when Obama bounces his gaze back and forth between the two prompter screens. I like your “five point” solution. Someone should show Obama what he looks like when he’s reading the prompter in “informal” situations. You can tell when he’s NOT reading a prompter, though, because then he punctuates his sentences with “Uhhh”.
    This is from the UK Guardian, 18 March 2009:
    “Obama is becoming known as the “tele­prompter president” for his reliance on the prompting screens, which retract when speeches are finished.”

  4. Kert, They usually position the teleprompters to the side and out of camera range, except in wide shots.
    Wendy, Great point. And he could keep them as they are and simply use “3 focal points” (or 5 focal points if he got skilled.) It’s actually easy to learn – boggles my mind why he isn’t getting good coaching.

  5. There is a simple solution for Obama’s prompter problem. He should use one of the new Jumbo Bright Prompters. He wouldn’t have that ping pong presentation look.

  6. Very interesting article, Bert. Watching Obama’s acceptance speech last night (Tuesday — the evening he won the election), I noticed his head moving back and forth and assumed teleprompter. However, I didn’t see anything on stage at all. Were there teleprompters on stage? Where were they hiding?

  7. I don’t begrudge him a few seconds of scripted speaking, and to be honest I never notice that it’s an issue (unlike McCain, who looks as if he’s trying to hex the audience with his eyes).
    I can only imagine these guys are surviving with very little sleep at the moment, and if they need to fall back on reading from a teleprompter rather than hours of rehearsing, then so be it.

  8. Hi Bert,
    Thanks for an informative post on how to use teleprompters. I’m going to check out the resource you suggested.
    I think you nailed it on the head when you said that most people don’t care about Obama’s teleprompter stiffness. The reason it stands out to you is that you’re an expert on its use, so you’re looking at it from a technical point of view.
    When I took a course in television production, the instructor said that we would never look at television the same way. He was right. Instead of going with the flow of the show and taking it in as a casual observer, I found myself taking note of every pan, tilt, fade and wipe in the show. I noticed, and still notice, the things that mean little to others watching the exact same thing.
    When I watch other speakers, I find myself doing the same things. In order for me to enjoy it, I have to turn of my internal speaking coach so I can truly appreciate the moment.
    I believe that’s why our opinions differ on whether Obama’s Iowa speech was “good” or “great”. I didn’t find his use of the teleprompter to be horrible, so it didn’t distract me. Now that you’ve got me thinking about “focal points”, I’ll have to let you know if my opinion changes in the future.
    Mind you, I’m of the opinion he’s going to deliver at least one more blockbuster speech (two if he’s elected) that will be placed among the greatest in American history. Remember where you heard it first.
    John Watkis