Sunday 7 September 2008

Using a teleprompter

We've had a few speechmakers in our family, and I don't just mean at occasions like weddings and a retirement party at the office. I'm talking big time speeches to a big audience. Count me out though - I think the biggest speech I made was at my 21st, and it was a disaster. Instead of making speeches, I have stuck to speechwriting (I've written a few over the years for the odd CEO, and had to write remarks for Ministers and the Premier, but nothing that I would describe as notable. I never want to hear those speeches uttered again).

I've asked various family members over the years how they prepare for a big speech, which were always made without notes or a teleprompter, and the answers usually went like this:

"To start with, you write it out in longhand (get that? Write it. Not type it - write it using a pad and pen.) Then you write it out again - the process helps to reinforce retention."

"Then you practice it whenever you can - standing in front of the mirror having a shave is always a good time to do it. You need to run through the entire speech, speaking every word as you would on the day in question, at least half a dozen times (get that? A half hour speech may require 3 solid hours of practice beforehand, if not more).

"You might take along a few index cards with note points on them, just in case you get lost at some point, but that should be it. By the time you make it, you should be able to recite it in your sleep. A good, 10 minute speech can require weeks of preparation."

I only saw one of these speeches in question being made, and it was at a fairly major convention that was a big deal about 9 years ago. Many speeches were made at this convention by the great and good, who had gathered from all over the country to thrash out a thorny question, but my relative was the only one to stand up and talk to the convention without notes. They were the only one not to stand there with their head bowed as they read a prepared speech in flat monotones. Some clearly didn't understand the words they were expected to declaim - I cringed whenever I heard one of them stumble over a word they had never seen before in print.

I found it to be the only interesting speech from the entire convention, and that was not due to family pride. The other delegates and observers were riveted by the spectacle of someone actually speaking, as opposed to reading a speech. I'm not sure they got the message, but the shock of not having to sit through another boring monotone certainly grabbed their attention.

Now this relative was a contemporary of Menzies when he was Prime Minister, so we are going back aways here. But they told me once that Menzies only made a few speeches each year as PM, and spent months preparing them. Of course Menzies wrote them all himself, and practiced them again and again and again until they were pitch perfect. The idea of a speechwriter would have been completely alien - what was the point of going into politics if you were unable to clearly articulate your ideas? Not somebody else's ideas - your ideas. Maybe that's why we think politicians used to be more trustworthy and had more conviction - what they said were their words. No one will ever trust a sock puppet.

I have written all of that to explain why the teleprompter is de rigeur these days.

When Menzies was on the election trail, there was no electronic media pack following him around recording everything he said and showing a 5 second grab on the evening news. Menzies made pretty much the same speech in every town hall that he visited during the campaign. He didn't need notes as he said the same thing over and over again - perhaps 50 or 100 times in a few weeks. I have an excellent biography on Montgomery, and he did the same thing when he was a General visiting the troops in the desert - he would stand on the hood of a jeep, hand out cigarettes to the men and then say the same things that he had said at dozens of other dusty locations in the middle of nowhere. One of his aides threatened to shoot him if he heard the same talk ever again. But that was the nature of the beast back then.

Public figures give a lot more speeches these days, and the media expects them to say something different every time. The likes of Obama and Palin don't have the time to write a speech, let alone practice it so many times that they can learn it by heart. They can't give the same speech every night at a different location - the media would ridicule them for failing to say something "new and refreshing".

The modern campaign has killed the art of speechmaking as we once knew it, and we might as well accept it.

Personally, I deplore the use of the teleprompter, but I completely understand why it has to be used, and I don't think any less of someone for using one.

1 comment:

missred said...

the hardest speech i ever had to give was to tell the dragon lady of a boss i had for 10 years that i was going to work for another v.p. in the company. i spent 10 days refining and rehearsing exactly 3 sentences. yes, i wrote it out long hand, edited it long hand and rehearsed it every hour. i was nervous, obviously, but by the end she hugged me, wished me well and thanked me for all i had done for her.
your words of wisdom do indeed work.