Why Teleprompters Suck

Teleprompters suck. Sure, they may tempt managers as a shortcut to ensure their speaker says everything they need to say in a video, and it allows the compliance department to check all their boxes. It may alleviate the need to edit the video at all. But the benefits start and end there.

We haven’t performed a study, but if a study existed where the average viewer was to guess if a speaker in any video was reading from a teleprompter, we’re sure they could guess with 90% accuracy.

We’ve learned that the most engaging quality in any video is authenticity — the not-for-sale ineffable quality of believability. Great actors can read a cereal box with enough genuine emotion to delight. But most people are not great actors, and the average speaker’s reading voice can make the most caffeinated constituent nod off.

We all expect a CEO to be commanding in a boardroom while managing hundreds of people (and millions of dollars). But watching a CEO read from a teleprompter — their eyes flitting back and forth, emotion drained from their body, their speaking voice stuck in a dead flatline — you can’t help but think, “Hogwash. This isn’t believable. There’s got to be a better way!”

And there is. The secret is in targeted sound bites. Our approach is to provide the speaker and the video director with optimal talking points that capture the essential content through a conversation. Instead of crafting a word-for-word speech, we ask our clients to give us a series of talking points that they want to touch on.

Such a tactic may increase the time needed to edit, but it undoubtedly creates more emotionally satisfying videos. With the help of experienced “human prompters” (a.k.a. directors or interviewers), we begin a conversation using these talking points as our guide. What we find is that most professionals know what they want to say — they live and breathe this stuff — and they genuinely care. Through a conversation, we are able to curate a much more engaging and believable performance that might cover the same ground, but in a more natural way. It’s only teleprompters that turn speakers into puppets with no emotional connection to the words they are mouthing

By using conversational prompts, you can create an authentic interaction, planting the seed for some real moments of poetry and emotion. When leaders speak from the heart on a subject that they care about, that sentiment translates well to the audience, no matter the subject or the speaker. Now, if the leader can’t generate this type of authentic engagement to the material, the company has a different problem and bigger issues are at play.

Of course, our final edit still passes through the compliance desks and maybe it makes their job harder, but this approach turns stiff corporate videos into compelling content that connects and sticks.

One final caveat: Not all teleprompters suck, of course. Teleprompter operators are exceptionally talented (some are close friends of ours) and the teleprompter hardware and software they use are tools — and sometimes are the most valuable tools — in critical forms of communication.

For example, for a long-form speech that has many points and where a key directive is to minimize editing, one could load short-form bullet points or specific data, facts and figures into the prompter, allowing the speaker to maintain the structure and outline of their intended message, while still speaking to each point authentically.

If you’re going to use a teleprompter, use it as a tool and not as a crutch. Let it take the place of hand-scribbled notes on a notepad and not as a script to be read. The audience wants to engage with you — not with words being artificially fed to you through a screen.

We suspect you’ll now notice the next time you see someone’s glassy eyes nervously flitting across the screen and you’ll likely say to yourself, “I wish that person would ditch the teleprompter and be real.”

Townsend Belisle
Founder and CEO at Haystack Needle

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