Bert Decker has just posted a very interesting piece arguing that President Obama’s use of the teleprompter isn’t doing any favours for his reputation as a great communicator.
This doesn’t surprise me, because I’ve always thought it a rather mixed blessing since seeing Margaret Thatcher’s performance deteriorate after she moved from using a script on a lectern to reading from teleprompter screens.
Before 1982, she never used a teleprompter. But, on seeing Ronald Reagan using it in a masterly speech to both houses of parliament that year, she was apparently so impressed that she told her aides that she wanted one too - and, a few months later she tried it out at the annual conference of the Conservative Party.
The immediate result was a dramatic fall in the amount of applause she received. In her 1981 Conference speech, she’d achieved the astonishing average of one burst of applause for every three sentences she uttered. A year later, aided, or rather abetted, by the teleprompter, her applause rate fell by about 35%.
One reason for this was that it interfered with an extremely regular part her delivery. When using a script on a lectern, she would routinely lower her eyes and head towards the text during the last two or three syllables as she approached a completion point (e.g. the end of the second part of a contrast or the third item in a list).
If anyone in the audience still wasn't sure that she’d finished and it was time to respond (i.e, applaud), any such doubt was eliminated by two more non-verbal signals: she would close her mouth tightly and audibly clear her throat.
In some of her speeches from a lectern, this didn’t just happen now and then, but on every single occasion she was applauded. You can see examples of the routine as she delivers two consecutive contrasts at the start of her third successful general election campaign in 1987:
Whereas this all worked pretty smoothly to trigger instantaneous applause, it was a very different story when Mrs Thatcher's eyes were fixed on teleprompter screens instead of a lectern. She no longer looked down towards the script as she came to a completion point, but gazed beyond the screens into thin air.
The removal of these decisive and unambiguous signals that she’d definitely finished and it was time to applaud meant that it didn’t happen as often as it did when could return her eyes to the lectern.
The line in this first example should have been guaranteed to get applause from any Tory party audience in 1982:
THATCHER “.. this is why we need nuclear weapons, because having them makes peace more secure.”
But, as you'll see, nothing happens, other than some rapid eye-blinking and a long pause from Mrs Thatcher before continuing, perhaps indicating that she’d both noticed and was surprised by the lack of applause:
In the next example, the audience does applaud after the second part of a contrast, but only after a delay of about half a second and then for noticeably less than the ‘standard’ 8 seconds (for more on ‘standard’ bursts of applause, see HERE) .
THATCHER: “We all want peace, but not peace at any price; peace with justice and freedom.”
Once the slight delay is over and the applause is underway, you can see that Mrs Thatcher half closes her mouth and then, looks down towards the lectern – after the applause had started rather than before it, as would have happened had she been reading from the lectern:
Although these may seem to be small details, there were so many of them in her 1982 conference speech that it's easy to pick out enough similar examples to be unsurprised that she got so much less applause than in the previous year.
For Mrs Thatcher, it brought with it other new, and rather odd-looking, changes to the way her eyes and body had previously moved. Sometimes, her eyes would remain fixed on one screen as her shoulders started moving towards the other one. Then, once the shoulders were in position, her head and eyes would dart very quickly and suddenly from one screen to the other, as if she wasn't going to take any chances about losing her place.
So this is why I started by saying that teleprompters are a mixed blessing for speakers. Few, including, it appears, President Obama can match Ronald Reagan's mastery of the technology. And some, like Margaret Thatcher, were considerably more effective reading from a script on sheets of paper resting on a lectern than when reading from transparent screens in front of them.
I first came across teleprompters when writing Our Masters' Voices 25 years ago. In those days, they used to be called 'sincerity machines' – and that, perhaps, is precisely the problem with them.