Monday, November 22, 2010

Teleprompter, Teleprompter, in the Hall, Who is the Truest of Them All?

I'd like to talk a little bit about teleprompters.
Last week, Judge Alex Ferrer asked his Facebook fans who their favorite public speaker was. Yes, I am a Facebook fan of Judge Alex. I really like crappy court shows, all right? In any case, one of the responses read as follows:
Reagan makes the list because he spoke from the heart with passion and he loved this country and made us all feel good about being Americans. He gave us hope that we could do anything we put our minds to. He was not afraid to call evil, evil. He did this without having to rely on teleprompters because it came from his core beliefs. Our current president speaks really well, but only with a teleprompter. Without it, he rivals Bush in ineffective speaking.
First of all, some perspective on the Reagan issue in particular:
Reagan was a media phenom, and he was well versed in the use of a teleprompter. That doesn't detract from or add to his policies or his speeches. It just means he was very good at using an increasingly important tool in any President's communications repertoire. Dwight Eisenhower was the first President to use one (though he did not do so prolifically), and pretty much every other President since has used a teleprompter for their prepared remarks. I originally wanted to include pictures of each President since Eisenhower using a teleprompter, but a.) it seems that the Internet is so obsessed with Obama's teleprompter use that any search including the word returns 95% images or political cartoons about Obama, and b.) though it would be cool, I am only willing to spend so much time pleading with the Internet to surrender a picture of Jimmy Carter using a teleprompter, particularly given the preceding point. Instead, I can give you a script from LBJ's, and pictures of both Bushes using them.
LBJ's teleprompter script
The hysteria over Obama's teleprompter use has always seemed exceptionally strange to me, given what teleprompters actually do. Maybe it's more important to talk about what they don't do - teleprompters are not magical speech generators. Prepared remarks can be loaded into a teleprompter, which then can be used in a couple ways, depending on the skills of the reader and the amount of prep time available. If the speaker has time to memorize most of their speech, then they use the teleprompter more like a stage director than a script, for prompts and checks rather than a direct read. If not - and this is likely the case with most modern Presidents - then the speaker may read more directly. Using a teleprompter doesn't make the remarks any more or less prepared.
George W. Bush and his teleprompter
Major Presidential addresses are prepared ahead of time, and for good reason. These addresses have national and global importance and it's important to consider their content ahead of time. Advance preparation also helps the speaker get more comfortable with the address, which in turn improves their delivery. Everyone has a different style, but in my experience, political speakers use notes more than most other speakers because of the particular type of rhetoric usually employed and the probability of figures, foreign names or other details likely to occur.
Does Obama use a teleprompter too often? Possibly. There have been several stories about him trying to wean himself off of it and not having that much success with the process. That being said, I do not believe his success as a speaker is contingent on the teleprompter. He is slower and more contemplative when he's speaking without it, but that too seems fairly natural to me, considering he is operating in a world viewed through the lens of a media system that is hypercritical of any speaker. I would want my words to be rightly understood, too, and a teleprompter is one way to get as close to a guarantee on that front as possible.

Simply put, teleprompters are an important tool in any President or public speaker's arsenal as they work to communicate effectively to a massive audience. To waste time complaining over a public speaker's use of an important technology is to take precious time away from actual issues, no matter how they are technically presented.

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