There is no shame in using a teleprompter.. There is huge trouble however in relying on it and failing to adjust when it isn’t there for you. Whether it is by operator error or system failure, the teleprompter can and will stop working and often at the most inopportune moments. You must be prepared for this and you must be willing to move forward without it.
Economy of words is a goal of any professional broadcaster. Certain shows allow for a talent to talk endlessly about whatever topic they choose. That is reserved for a select few who have garnered an audience large enough to warrant this style of broadcasting. For the vast majority, understanding how to communicate quickly, effectively and in an entertaining fashion becomes paramount to long term success.
NOT A CRUTCH
The teleprompter is a tool to help achieve that purpose. But it is not a crutch. When you are on camera, you would like to look at the viewer, but it is not necessary to be effective. There is no shame in looking down at notes, in reading from a page or ultimately avoiding staring down your audience. You will not give off the appearance of being uneducated if you look away from the camera. The object is to be right and be effective so if the prompter stops working, be certain you can handle staring into the lens before speaking, otherwise, do what you need to do to tell the story effectively before moving on to something that covers the screen in graphics or video.
The most dangerous area is scripted lead ins where you are expected to be on camera to either read a news report that doesn’t have or need video accompaniment as a lead into a story. You will have spent a great deal of time crafting everything you want to say, down to the syllable. Without the prompter, those words are gone. Now unless you are a trained actor or someone who has an amazing memory, you will not be able to call up those words verbatim. So you have to improvise and improvisation will separate you from those cannot.
IMPROV IS KEY
To prepare for improvisation, you must prepare your mind to improvise. I know many broadcasters who have an interest in acting or comedy. Improvisation classes can help you here, not in an attempt to usurp traditional broadcast and take them off the rails, but in terms of mentally preparing yourself for those moments when you’ll need to think fast. This of course is not a requirement. But you should be mentally prepared to deal with the fact that the words won’t always be right in front of you, so can you surmise what you wanted to say quickly, effectively and without unnecessary delay?
It can become painfully obvious to the viewer when a broadcaster is struggling with the material. What they don’t know are the technical issues that may have preceded those moments. The prompter is a culprit that does not translate to the viewer, and honestly they don’t care. If you actually apologized on air for misspeaking and blamed it on the fact that words were not in front of you to read verbatim, the viewer will get the impression that you are a thoughtless dolt. This is never an excuse. Do you know the material? Are you a professional storyteller? Then why can’t you tell that story, even if it is not exactly how you planned to tell it initially? The point is, don’t marry yourself to the words you thought you were going to say unless you are one of the few who can write something or have something written for you and immediately be able to memorize those words.
RADIO/PODCASTING SKILLS COME INTO PLAY
The beauty of radio and podcasting is that there is little scripted (not in all cases of course-Garrison Keiler hosts Prairie Home Companion for NPR- an homage to radio shows of the past that are scripted and acted out replete with production value). Most radio shows are based on premise and then allow the conversation to happen freely and naturally. Engaging hosts win.
Television is not this type of medium. It is mainly highly coordinated and pre-planned. Thus the ability to switch into a radio styled host at moments of technical issue will only help you. The viewer will be attracted to those who handle issues on TV with grace. The consummate pros are the ones who cover up those mistakes without the viewer being aware that they even occurred. The special talents can make glaring technical issues into memorable moments. Becoming flummoxed, out of words or appearing to be incapable to move forward offers a direct line to You Tube immortality and not the kind you want people to think about.
WHEN I USE IT …
I use the teleprompter sparingly. For planned lead ins to story or news items, I want it to be there because it allows for the telecast to look and feel smooth. But on just about anything else, I am only reading from it should I be in a position where I can’t have scripts around me or is necessitated because the wording is paramount, i.e.- a sponsored element where you have to say something specific for sales purposes or in moments where exact lines are necessary to repeated verbatim. On Sportscenter, we cannot use team nicknames when discussing gambling lines set by Las Vegas. We must use cities. Ad-libbing this moment by saying the Packers are favored by 3, could lead to trouble especially if my script outlined that I must say Green Bay is the team that is favored.
MY FIVE TIPS FOR TELEPROMPTER SUCCESS:
Consider the teleprompter a tool. Don’t be ashamed of it. The President uses it to deliver just about any major speech that is written for him. It is a necessary part of TV not just for your performance but for those in the control room who are following your lead. Scripts are timed. Sticking to them allows for the director and other technical personnel to know when to roll tape or show graphics. This is a highly coordinated effort and it is your responsibility to master that coordination with your show unit. But the prompter doesn’t have to and really shouldn’t determine show pace. And for the sake of understanding that it won’t always be there when you need it most, you should learn to devalue it’s very existence and train yourself to be prepared to have to speak off the cuff with the same economy and efficiency that you would if everything you said was scripted out..
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