Why Does Obama Use a Teleprompter?
As the president, Obama’s every word is studied and parsed. If he makes a mistake or “misspeaks himself,” he can get himself and the nation into trouble.
President Ford, for example, caused an international uproar that contributed to his own defeat when in a debate with Jimmy Carter he stated that Poland and Eastern Europe were not under the domination of the Soviet Union. And there are entire books and websites devoted to George W. Bush’s malapropisms.
Obama speaks so frequently on so many topics that he has to rely on other people to write his speeches.
As a result he cannot simply speak extemporaneously or from notes. Using a teleprompter allows him to read his speeches without looking down at his text on the podium.
You may want to fault Obama for how he uses the teleprompter or for what he says or for how often he speaks, but it’s unfair to blame him (or any president) for relying on a teleprompter.
What’s the Problem with Using a Teleprompter?
There is nothing wrong with a President (or anyone else) using a teleprompter, as long as it is used well. And the sign that a teleprompter is used well is that no one notices it is being used.
For all of his rhetorical expertise, Obama uses the teleprompter poorly.
- He has made mistakes using the teleprompter, including the time he and the Irish prime minister ended up reading from each other’s speeches.
- He has drawn attention to the fact that he is using a teleprompter, motioning for the operator to speed things up or speaking directly to the operator.
- But the worst thing he does – and he does it consistently — is to switch from one screen and to the other every four to five seconds, looking first left and then right. It looks like he’s watching a slow-motion tennis game.
People — and the media — have recently noticed how much Obama relies on a teleprompter. (It’s not a new occurrence. He’s been using a teleprompter poorly for a long time.) But it’s never a good thing when people call attention to a leader’s speaking deficiencies.
Obama, like any leader, wants people discussing his ideas and acting on his initiatives, not commenting on his delivery style and certainly not on his delivery problems.
What Can Obama Do?
Obama can learn to use the teleprompter more effectively. He needs to look not only at and through the two screens (which are slightly to the right and to the left), but also straight ahead and to the far right and far left. And he needs to shift his focus from one spot to another in relationship to what he is saying, holding his gaze steady for an entire phrase of maybe even a sentence. By doing so, he’ll make his audience feel more engaged, he’ll look and feel more authentic, and he’ll look and sound more commanding.
What’s the Takeaway for the Rest of Us?
We’re not the President of the United States. (And, at least in my case, that’s a good thing for everyone involved.) Most of us are responsible for preparing our own speeches. Most of the time audiences are not hanging on our every word. And few of us ever have to use a teleprompter. (If you do, you might want to buy The Teleprompter Manual by Laurie Brown.) So here are some suggestions:
- Avoid reading your speech word for word. Instead, create a simple and clear outline and speak from your notes.
- Speak only when you’re looking someone in the eye. It’s okay to look at your notes. Just don’t speak while you’re looking at them.
- Keep the focus on your audience and on your idea, not on you and your performance style.
- Rehearse what you’re going to say. Don’t say it word for word over and over again. Simply stand up and move around as you talk through your main ideas out loud.
- Let as few things — a podium, a teleprompter, your text — get between you and your audience.
Is there anything you’d add?