Four Tips When Speaking From A Teleprompter

This is the fifth post in a six-part series focusing on the various methods of delivering a presentation, including talking from a script, using a script with “holes,speaking from notes, using a teleprompter, and memorizing your talk.

There it is: your entire presentation, sitting in front of you on a teleprompter like a warm, comfortable, digital security blanket. Politicians use them. Television hosts use them. Why shouldn’t you?

The most direct answer is that speaking from a teleprompter is hard. If most speakers who read from a prepared script sound like they’re reading from a script, imagine how much tougher it is to read one from two small panels of glass, flanked on the speaker’s left and right sides, located feet apart from one another!

Because it’s difficult for most speakers to develop a rapport with their audiences while using a teleprompter, we typically discourage their use. But in limited circumstances, teleprompters can remain a useful tool. (An example: a high-stakes event at which the precision of your words — which will carry to a much broader audience outside of the room — matters more than the connection you forge with the live audience inside the room.)


President Ronald Reagan uses a traditional “presidential” teleprompter setup in 1988 (via Reagan Library).

Many of the same rules discussed in previous posts still pertain when using a teleprompter—but these four additional considerations also apply.

1. You control the pace: Teleprompters typically display between 4 — 6 lines of text at a time. Most presenters prefer to have the line they’re currently speaking somewhere in the middle of the glass. If it appears too close to the top, they rush to say it before the line disappears (teleprompters scroll from bottom to top). If it’s at the bottom, they worry that their next line won’t arrive in time. To make sure your lines appear exactly where you want them, practice several times with the person scrolling the teleprompter for you.

This part is critical: the teleprompter operator should follow your pace, not the other way around. When you slow down, the prompter’s scroll should slow down. When you speed up, so too should your text. Practicing in advance will help the operator get familiar with your flow and give you confidence that the two of you are in sync. During your practice, also make sure that you’re comfortable with font size and panel height, which can be adjusted as needed.

2. Avoid the ping pong match: Because most teleprompters have a left and right panel, speakers tend to turn their heads back and forth in a predictable manner as if watching a fast-moving ping pong match. Dallas Prompters, a company that specializes in the technology, advises speakers to: “Push yourself to stay with each panel for longer than (at first) feels comfortable; use the start of a new sentence — or, even better, introduction of a new topic — as a reason to change the direction of your gaze.”

3. Consider adding extemporaneous holes: In the previous lesson, I discussed the advantages of leaving your script occasionally to add brief portions of extemporaneous speech; you can do that when using a prompter, too. But clearly mark the script (“PROMPTER STOP – TELL CLIENT STORY”) and practice those moments with the operator in advance. The operator will stop scrolling upon seeing that cue, and your next scripted line will be waiting for you when you finish the story. One note: inserting a planned extemporaneous hole is different from extended spontaneous ad-libs, which can confuse the operator and leave you staring at the wrong part of the script when you’re ready for it again.

4. Mark the script: You can mark your script in advance with the same types of clearly-marked emphasis and reminder cues that you would use in a paper script. Because teleprompters can malfunction, however, always bring a printed copy of your speech with you to the stage! There’s one additional mark you should insert — page endings. Because there are no clear markings of page endings on a prompter (all of the words run as continuous text), add a mark, such as three backslashes (///), to signify to yourself that you’ve reached a page break. Every time you see those three backslashes on the prompter, subtly turn the page on your paper copy. That way, if the prompter suddenly dies, you’ll at least be on the correct printed page and be able to find your place again quickly.

You can also use prompters for brief bulleted memory triggers rather than a complete text, which allows for a more extemporaneous style. (More commonly, you’ll find that approach used with “confidence monitors,” or televisions mounted to the stage floor that contain your brief bullets, often alongside an image of the PowerPoint slide being projected behind you. Look closely at the video of many TED Talks, and you’ll see them at the foot of the stage.)

TEDGlobal 2012 - June 25 - 29, 2012, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Confidence monitors are positioned at the front of the stage in Amy Cuddy’s 2012 TED Talk.

Or, you can use a blended teleprompter approach that contains bullets and a few scripted sections, if you’d like to read a few quotes or passages verbatim.

Although this lesson focuses primarily on the most traditional form of teleprompters, there are others. For instance, many people have downloaded apps onto their personal devices, which automatically roll text at a consistent speed of your choosing. The same caveats apply to any similar form of teleprompter technology — there should be a specific purpose for using it beyond the fact that it’s available for instant download.