Teleprompter hate

PrompterWhy so much hate?

How can a simple electronic device become a symbol for all that is disingenuous, dishonest and dishonorable.

What am I talking about? A laptop, mirror and frame called a teleprompter.

Among the items featured in the gallery of horribles in this anti-Obama display in Morgan Hill, California is the lowly teleprompter – an object of scorn and distrust. Perhaps the most accepted shorthand symbol for falsity in our culture.

Just Google teleprompter and look in the images section. The prompter is an analog for an accusation of lying or deception.

Now, having spent a lifetime in television, I only watch TV out of the corner of one eye. What I mostly do is watch other people watching TV. I find this most instructive.

In this political season, the amount of suspicion heaped upon anybody “reading a prompter” is remarkable. It’s as if the speaker’s words have no “real” meaning if they’re being prompted. Viewers immediately suspect foul play, nefarious motives and a weak intellect if they become aware teleprompting is in use.

Commentators, writers, columnists, man-on-the-street interviews, social networking friends and family all routinely point to the use of a teleprompter as the root of all rhetorical evil. Again, Google “prompting” or “teleprompting” and look at the mentions in what passes for political analysis.

I find this naive, and amazing.

Naive in that viewers and voters seem so determined to indulge in some fantasy that every speech, story or message is only “real” if it’s memorized. That only through a burst of masterful and impromptu oratory is the speaker somehow “genuine.” Now, let’s make no mention of the fact the speaker may or may not have written his own material. Hell, nobody cares about the writing. Having a speech writer put the words in a speaker’s mouth is readily accepted – no – it’s the use of the prompter that truly provides the mirror into the soul of the speaker. What a crock.

There seems to be no recognition that if a speech or story or presentation requires detailed, specific and well thought out construction – it may not be possible or even wise to render to memory on an hourly, daily, weekly or even monthly basis. The same people who criticize the use of prompting probably don’t know who represents them in Congress or the state legislature. That’s a fact you can take two, four or six years to memorize.

Now realize that reading a prompter takes practice. It’s easy to come across very stilted, flat and un-conversational if you’re not good at it. There are times when they can enhance a message, and times when they can detract from it. You have to be an effective communicator to recognize whether the tool (and that’s all it is) will help or hurt in any given situation.

But understand the tool itself is not inherently evil, and writing off a speaker’s message just because it is being read is intellectually lazy and a sure sign of what I consider to be a lightweight’s analysis. The mere use of a mirror reflecting copy into the lens of a camera can not be used as a proxy in a determination of truth.

Back in my world, in television, the day-in-day-out blur of stories, characters and events make prompting a very useful tool. Care can be exercised in writing precise copy that conveys important information in a timely fashion. Care can also be exercised in making sure there is balance, attribution and fairness that might not be as carefully crafted if ad-libbing. Now make no mistake, ad-libbing your way through news stories or a show can be done (we all have war stories about doing entire newscasts off a rundown when the power goes out etc.), but it’s not precise – efficient or as thoughtful since the hours of care exercised in WRITING often gets lost. The good stories, the good jokes, the good scripts in TV dramas and meaningful political speeches are all written – not just spewed out extemporaneously, no matter how it appears.

By the same token, doing a live interview or town hall reading questions or answers off a prompter is pointless. There is no way to listen and have an honest exchange of ideas in a more conversational setting if questions and answers are pre-scripted. You don’t use pliers to turn a screw.

While I’m mainly talking about political speech in this blog, I’ll also fill you in on a little “inside TV” production secret. The anchors and reporters or hosts who are often excoriated for using teleprompters are generally more-than-happy to to ad-lib their way though a program (news, entertainment – whatever) – but it’s the production side that howls like wild monkeys when “roll cues” don’t coincide with the script.

See, even the people sitting in the booth aren’t actually listening to the content – they’re waiting for key words to initiate the next element of the program. It’s the prompting that cues the elements of the program’s timeline, and while the presenters may be perfectly happy yapping-away extemporaneously, the crew is having its collective mind blown.

Just about EVERY viewer I’ve ever interacted with on a station tour is fascinated by two things: the green screen, and the teleprompter. Sixty years later, it still somehow represents “TV magic.” The next question is always, “Who writes the stories?” This briefly rebuilds my faith in the human race in that it at least shows some concern about the content, and not just the mechanisms of TV production. It gives me a chance to talk about the editorial process, fact gathering, the process of exclusion, the nature of information and the skill set required to be effective. I briefly delude myself into thinking they are more interested in this discussion than they are about, “Who does your makeup?”

So what’s my point? That every time you hear an analyst bring up the use of a teleprompter to make a judgement about a speaker, message or candidate – recognize them as a lightweight who phoned-it-in for the day. As a communicator, I have and will continue to use prompting when I need the time to write, be precise and make effective use of limited time. I suggest you evaluate our political leaders in the same light.

I propose that we become MUCH more interested in what they think and how much of their speeches they actually write than whether they use a decades-old tool to deliver it.