On the use of teleprompters

March 6, 2009

The New York Times has a piece on the American President’s constant use of teleprompters. Apparently Mr. Obama uses them every time television cameras are around to capture prepared remarks.

Heck, why not? Even his adversaries recognize the man is one of the most gifted public speakers of his generation. Far from making him appear insincere, the teleprompter seems to enhance his performance. It works.

So, does that mean you should train your spokesperson to use one? I would say Yes, if one of the following conditions applies:

  • The spokesperson frequently addresses groups in venues where teleprompters can be set up. That includes seminars, conventions, news conferences, etc. If you can replace cue cards with a teleprompter, you should certainly consider it.
  • He regularly has to make videos, public service announcements, or those annoying free-air-time political messages. By using a ‘prompter, you will drastically reduce the number of takes necessary for anything longer than 30 seconds.

Notice how frequency of use is important. For most people, using the teleprompter requires practice. If it gathers dust for months between uses, chances are your spokesperson should not be using it at all.

You obviously need to train somebody to operate the ‘prompter. Ideally, it’s always the same person (or two) and they have trained with the spokesperson. It’s fairly embarassing to see your boss struggle through his text because the teleprompter operator is not familiar with his delivery speed.

The situation when the teleprompter is most useful in when the boss is tired. She can barely think straight, but there’s this 5-minute address we have to tape (in French!) and send out to the Quebec regional office tomorrow. Getting the teleprompter out of its box is the only way you’ll get quality delivery out of her.

One obvious caveat: if your spokesperson doesn’t like to read from prepared notes during his public speaking performances, he will not be able to use the teleprompter effectively. He will get frustrated, he will hate the machine and he will resent you.

Ignatieff’s speaking style: a little weirdness can work

January 28, 2009

So Michael Ignatieff has an amendment that is unlikely to precipitate an election, although it’s still within the realm of possibilities. That is what we heard once the National Press Gallery Amphitheatre technicians managed to get the rarely-used microphones to work.

Michael Ignatieff is a lot better behind a podium than in sit-down interviews. His PR people will need to graft braces to his legs and hips to stop that annoying swaying, but aside from that his style kind of works for him. I presume some might be put off by his somewhat peculiar use of rhymes and a speaking style reminiscent of the 1940s, but it can also be compelling. I wouldn’t mind seeing some good focus-group reports on this (if a leaky liberal out there is in the mood to share, don’t be shy and email).

Happy birthday to you, Nellie McClung and Tommy Douglas

October 20, 2008

Yes, those two icons of the Canadian social left were born on October 20 – McClung in 1873, Douglas in 1904.

Those two reformers were products of their time when it came to their approach to public relations: both relied on their capacity to convince and inspire people they met individually, or in groups ranging from a few dozens to large public assemblies of thousands. Some of those gatherings were in the open air, others in the traditional church basement, the factory, etc. They met people were people lived and worked, asking only for twenty minutes of their time.

Since then, the interaction has gradually reversed. Nowadays, the only occasion when politicians get to speak before a large crowd is for that miserable aberration that is the fundraising dinner.

Speaking of public speaking…

In today’s political campaigns or social movements, the political rally is used either as a way to get people to donate money and time to the campaign, or as a backdrop for television. This way of conceptualizing the role of one’s supporters has an impact on how the event is planned and executed. I’ve been to events where a small crowd of people had to wait for half an hour for the show to get going, not because the spokesperson had not arrived (he was backstage the whole time), but because television cameras were on their way.

There are still exceptions within the new mass-media framework. Because of the way Barack Obama relates to people, he can get the best of both worlds: convince and inspire a crowd of 100,000 in person… while being seen doing so by television audiences that reach into the hundreds of millions.