At some point, most executives and public figures need to give a speech from a teleprompter. If you haven’t already had the experience, it’s possible your day is coming.
Prompters have great advantages—they allow you to look out at the audience &/or into the camera, while still having your entire speech right in front of your eyes. However, the pitfall is that it’s easy to look stiff and stilted. Prompters are notorious for turning spontaneous natural speakers into wooden soldiers.
Effective delivery requires more than just reading words off a screen. Paradoxically, you need careful preparation and practice to look spontaneous, natural and engaging. Cadence, voice modulation and body language are all crucial components of a successful speech. By taking the time to practice cadence, voice modulation and body language, you can deliver a speech that makes the impact you desire.
Before you begin rehearsing, familiarize yourself with the teleprompter features, such as speed control, text size, format options (ex: bold, highlighting) screen configuration and more. This is true whether you’re working with a prompter operator or a do-it-yourself app.
First, make sure you can see the text clearly and easily, without straining. Second, have it formatted in a way that supports your delivery. Third, set the speed at which the text will scroll. The pace should match your natural speaking style, you should not try to match the prompter. But more on that, later.
It also helps to get comfortable with the space in which you’ll be delivering the speech: whenever possible, practice in the actual location, with the teleprompter in front of you. If you can’t do that, mimic the set-up as closely as possible in rehearsals. This helps you adapt effectively to the layout, lighting, and visibility of the teleprompter screen. The goal is to help you feel you’re in somewhat familiar territory at the time of the actual speech.
Even the best natural speakers can trip up once they go into “reading mode”. As you rehearse, make sure you learn to avoid these common pitfalls.
1. Being Tied to the Prompter
I’ve lost count of how many people have called me saying, “Help! I just gave a major speech using a teleprompter and I had no idea how hard it would be.”
It’s a big mistake to think that just because your speech is up on the prompter, you don’t need to prepare. Teleprompters freeze from time to time. Technical glitches happen. You must be familiar with your script in case you need to wing it for a few moments. And even if everything goes smoothly with the prompter, if you’re reading the script for the first time in front of the audience. They will be able to tell. It’s called being “glued” to the prompter. When it comes to audience engagement, your delivery style is just as important as the words you’re reading. And over-reliance on the prompter makes it much harder to give a natural and compelling delivery.
2. Reading not speaking
Speaking in a monotone or flat tone can make your audience tune out. Even if the material is interesting, humans are wired to get tired and bored when they hear a monotone voice. Be sure to vary your tone and pitch to keep your audience interested. And add pauses.
When you have the luxury of seeing every word written out clearly in front of you, there is a temptation to rush. Speakers have a tendency to try to talk at the speed at which they read. Factor in nerves and excitement and It can feel counterintuitive to speak at a conversational pace. Speakers constantly tell me they’re afraid of boring the audience. However, speaking too quickly actually makes it difficult for your audience to track the information you’re sharing and it makes them tune out. Speaking at a conversational pace is more engaging than rushing.
When you rehearse, make sure to go at a conversational speaking pace. Then make sure the prompter scrolling speed is set to match your pace. If the text scrolls too slowly, it causes awkward speaking cadence; and if it scrolls too quickly, you may go to fast, or struggle to keep up.
4. Too much or too little eye movement
It’s all too easy to stare at the screen—sometimes without blinking much—and direct all your gestures, facial expression and emotions towards the plate of glass sourcing all your words. If you are only on broadcast or livestream, this is fine. But if there is a live audience in the room, it's important to make eye contact and engage with them as well. Look away from the teleprompter occasionally to connect with your audience, and use body language to enhance your message.
Don’t overdo it, however. Moving your eyes around too much will look disjointed to the people watching you on-camera. Avoid darting your eyes back and forth, and opt for longer sweeping glances across the room.
And when you’re not looking around, keep your focus on the same spot on the screen, and read the words as they scroll up to meet your gaze. Don’t chase them across or down the screen.
5. Excess tension in the face
We all know that nerves can make our face, neck and shoulders tight. Staring at a screen can exacerbate this. Often speakers will have extra tension around their eyes and jaw. I've even seen speakers go without blinking for inordinate amounts of time!
Allow the muscles around your eyes to relax, so you’re not squinting or glaring. And relax your neck and shoulders before you walk onto the stage. I teach my clients a quick face massage that brings out their best look on-camera. There are many relaxation techniques, so find one that is right for you.
Everybody flubs words now and then, but certain mispronunciations can be a lot worse than others. Here are a few embarrassing ones by US Presidents.
During his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama accidentally referred to "corpsmen" (pronounced kohr-muhn) as "corpse-men", severely undermining what should have been poignant moment in a touching story.
In 1977, during a speech at the University of Notre Dame, President Jimmy Carter’s prompter said “inconvenience” but he accidentally said, “incontinence”, (which turned out to be a big inconvenience, for the President, by the way.)
To help avoid that, you can write out words phonetically. Here’s an example of how I once formatted the term habeas corpus for a client:
The bold syllables are for emphasis.
7. Missing the curveballs
Even with extensive practice, mistakes can happen. If you find yourself stumbling, take a deep breath and continue on—remember, audiences often don’t notice small slip-ups, and even when they do, they likely will forget about them way before you do.
You may want to have notes on your lectern just in case something goes wrong. In 2009, during President Barack Obama’s speech to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, the teleprompter stopped working. Obama famously handled the situation by seamlessly switching to his notes on the lectern. Having back-up always helps.
But with or without back-up notes, Steve Jobs, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton have all endured prompter fails at pivotal moments, and have managed to continue on without a hitch.
Watch Jacinda Arden’s finesse during her commencement address at Harvard on May 26, 2022. She later commented that the prompter froze for about 3 seconds every few minutes. She said it was quite stressful at the time, but you wouldn’t know it from watching her in the moment.
On the other hand, note the sharp contrast to situations where prompter problems were not handled with as much aplomb.
Michael Bay infamously walked out of a CES talk when his prompter failed, even though his fellow speaker onstage made it beyond easy for him to answer a few simple questions.
In the end, practice, practice and then practice some more. If your speech is important enough to warrant a prompter, it’s important enough to commit to excellence. And to reach excellence, you need to rehearse. Recording yourself and watching playback helps enormously. Look at general impressions, pacing, vocal intonation, body language and facial expressions. Make notes of what you'd like to improve and do it again. You can ask trusted friends and colleagues for input, as well.
How do you know when you’ve practiced enough? When you look at that person on the screen and think, I wanna be like him or her.