Should you fear the teleprompter?

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Few pieces of technology have been met with more derision of late than the teleprompter. The trusty speech aid has been in use by national candidates since the 1950s, but this cycle it has been little more than fodder for political attacks. President Obama’s excessive use of the teleprompter, critics say, reveals him as inauthentic and unprepared. Those attacks were frequent during the GOP primary contest. At one campaign stop, former Sen. Rick Santorum suggested, “when you run for president of the United States, it should be illegal to read off a teleprompter.” It got us thinking about whether the image of the teleprompter has been irreparably damaged, and whether down ballot candidates are now more vulnerable to the same sort of attacks. We asked some speechwriters about all the teleprompter hate. “It’s a way of trying to say that we’re more authentic,” Clark Judge says of the attacks coming from conservatives. Judge was a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan and is now the managing director of the White House Writers Group. The notion that spontaneity always equals authenticity, however, isn’t necessarily one that Judge embraces. Without a teleprompter, says Judge, speeches “haven’t been as crisp and disciplined.” “People will remember you for your ideas,” says Paul Orzulak, who served as foreign policy speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. “Republicans have nothing to talk about that’s negative about Obama so they attack the teleprompter.” Jeff Shesol, a founding partner at West Wing Writers who also served as a Clinton speechwriter, thinks Santorum’s sentiment reveals a “lack of emphasis on the speechwriting process and a lack of focus” that likely hurt the Republican’s campaign. While you shouldn’t be afraid of the teleprompter as a candidate, even most speechwriters we asked seem to agree that it’s not something any campaign should use with great frequency. For speeches to national audiences, and even major speeches for statewide candidates, a teleprompter is a no-brainer, especially if it keeps the candidate on track and enhances delivery. If the performance is better with a teleprompter—use it, regardless of what your opponents might say. Another point of agreement among our speechwriter friends: whether you’re running for the White House, a congressional seat, or the state Senate, hire a speechwriter if you can afford it. Between news conferences, fundraisers, and campaign events, finding time to write quality speeches is tough. “Too often candidates will turn to someone in the press staff who may be an excellent writer, but they also have a lot of other jobs to do,” says Shesol. Even if you don’t contract a speechwriter, delegate the writing duties to someone in the campaign who will make it a priority, he suggests. “A little bit of investment early in the process will pay down the line.”


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