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Video Q&A: Should I Ad-lib or Use a Teleprompter?

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Presenting information on camera can be stressful. Many people worry they'll freeze up and forget what to say, or that they'll say something stupid. This raises a popular question: should you ad-lib in your video, or write a script and read it off a teleprompter?

 

What is Ad-libbing?

When you ad-lib, you speak spontaneously or "off the cuff." You don't write a script and read from it; you improvise as you go. It's a lot less work than writing a script, and often results in a more relaxed and natural performance.

This doesn't mean there's no preparation involved in ad-libbing, though. Before you sit down in front of the video camera and hit that record button, you need to take some time to think about and map out your main points.

Don’t write a script and try to memorize it. I say this for a couple of reasons:

  1. You’ll never be able to remember it all, especially if you’re nervous. Never mind that it’ll take you forever to try memorize it. 
  2. We write differently than we speak. We tend to be more formal and less conversational when we write, so you’ll end up sounding scripted.

Instead, try this technique that I teach to beginning reporters who are learning how to do what we call “live hits.” A live hit is where a reporter is on location, usually at the scene of some kind of breaking news, and they tell us what’s going on. They don’t have time to write a whole script—they just get in front of the video camera and talk.

Reporter doing live hit
Reporter Kasia Bodurka does a live hit for The Weather Network (Photo by Cindy Burgess)

Sounds terrifying, doesn’t it? But just because they don’t have a written script doesn’t mean they haven’t thought about what they’re going to say. In fact, they’ve created an outline or road map to guide them, so that they use the limited time they have most effectively.

How to Structure an Ad-lib

The easiest way to do this is to use the simple structure that all stories are made up of: beginning, middle and end.

The beginning is where you introduce yourself to your viewers, and tell them what your topic is. If you want to memorize anything, memorize your introduction. That way you’ll get off to a smooth start.

The middle is where you deliver your key messages. But rather than writing a script, create bullet points. Just a couple of words for each is fine.  You’re not writing out sentences: you’re creating prompts to guide you and ensure you cover everything you want. Give some thought to how you arrange these bullet points—they should flow logically.

The end, of course, is where you wrap up your on-camera presentation and say goodbye. Know how you want to wrap up before you start. This is another spot where it’s okay write a line or two and memorize it. That way you’ll finish smoothly as well.

Relax, it's not Brain Surgery!

At this point, you’re probably thinking: no script? I can’t do that! I’ll forget what to say! But remember, you know what you’re talking about. You’re the expert. Once you get going, you’ll be fine. Your bullet list is there to guide you. Don’t be afraid to refer to it to keep yourself on track. You can even tape it to the bottom of the video camera so it’s right there in front of you.

Don’t worry about making mistakes. No one expects you to be perfect. But they do expect you to be genuine, and that’s a lot easier to do when you’re talking naturally as opposed to reading a script.

So just to recap, here's how to prepare for an unscripted or ad-libbed presentation: 

  1. Write a short introduction. One or two lines max. Memorize this. 
  2. Create a list of bullet points that outlines what you’re going to talk about. Focus only on the most important points. This list is your guide. It will keep you from rambling or taking long pauses while you think of what else you want to cover. 
  3. Decide how you’re going to wrap up your presentation. Are you going to recap what you’ve covered? Are you going to direct viewers to a website for more information? Are you simply going to say thank you and goodbye? Know how you’re going to end and memorize a short line here too.

It’s a good idea to do a quick rehearsal, or “dry run,” before you start recording. That way you’ll have a feel for how the information is going to flow. Don’t rehearse too much, though, or you’ll lose that sense of spontaneity that helps make a performance feel natural.

As wonderful as ad-libbing is, there may be times when you want or need a written script. This is where a teleprompter comes in handy.

What is a Teleprompter?

Teleprompters (or autocues) are used widely in television and video production. Here's a quick look at how they work:

 

Professional teleprompters tend to be large and expensive. But there are smaller, more affordable, and more portable teleprompters available that use a tablet as part of the prompting system.

If you’re recording video with a tablet or smartphone, there are numerous prompting apps—free and paid—that allow you to upload a script and get it scrolling. Some even let you control the speed manually with a wireless remote. There are even prompter apps like PromptSmart that are voice activated—so when you stop speaking, the script stops scrolling. When you start speaking again, the scrolling resumes.

Now at this point, you’re probably thinking why wouldn’t I use a teleprompter? The advantages are pretty clear. You can do your entire presentation in one take, which saves time. You won’t have any “ums” and “ahs” or mistakes, which makes you look pretty good. And if you already own a tablet or smart phone, you can just download an app. You can even build your own teleprompter with instructions found on the internet.

Disadvantages of a Teleprompter

But there are downsides to using a teleprompter. It takes a lot of practice to sound like you’re talking off the cuff and not reading a script. Newscasters make it look easy, but it takes years of practice and experience to get to that stage.

Woman reads from a teleprompter
Journalism students learn how to use a teleprompter (Photo by Cindy Burgess)

Part of the problem is that only a few lines of your script are on the screen at a time. You need to develop an ability to read ahead to the next line in your head while you’re talking, so you have a smooth rhythm and sound natural.

Another downside is that you usually need someone to operate the teleprompter for you. It’s a real art to be able to run a teleprompter and read at the same time—take it from me!

Finally, when you read off a screen in front of you, your eyes move back and forth. If you sit too close to the teleprompter, your viewers will be able to see that eye movement and will know you’re reading.

Tips for Writing a Script

One of the keys to success in using a teleprompter is in the scripting. Broadcasters are trained to write copy that is simple, concise and conversational—copy that’s meant to be spoken aloud. You can do this too by following these tips:

  • Keep your sentences short and simple. Think in terms of subject–verb–object.
  • Use plain language. For example, say “buy” instead of “purchase” or “doctor” instead of “physician.” When you’re writing your script, examine every word and ask yourself: would I actually say this in regular conversation? Simple, everyday language is best.
  • Read your script out loud as you’re writing it. Words can look fine on paper, but turn into tongue twisters when it comes time to speak them. So talk it out.

Test Drive a Teleprompter App

Before you spend money on a teleprompter, I recommend that you get the feel for one by using a tablet or smartphone with a free prompter app. Simply download the app of your choice and enter your script as instructed. Then place your tablet at eye level, activate the teleprompter, and practice reading out loud. Experiment with different scrolling speeds to see what works for you.

After you’ve practiced a bit, record yourself reading from the teleprompter and play it back. Are you looking directly into the lens, or slightly off to the side? Remember, the lens on a mobile device is not in the middle of the screen—it’s usually on the edge. You’ll need to be far enough away that the viewer can’t tell that you’re looking slightly to the side. Can you see your eyes moving back and forth? If so, move further away from the tablet. You need to find that sweet spot where you can read the text clearly without squinting, but you’re far enough from the camera that viewers can’t see your eye movements.

If you’re recording yourself with a video camera, you can use your tablet as a teleprompter by mounting it to a tripod. The key here is to make sure the tablet is as close to the lens of the camera as possible—either directly below it or beside it. 

iPad teleprompter beneath video camera
An iPad with a teleprompting app (Photo by Cindy Burgess)

Experiment by recording yourself at different distances from the teleprompter to see how noticeable your eye direction and movement is.

Using a teleprompter effectively requires skill and practice—lots of practice! Ultimately, it comes down to a matter of personal preference. Some people like the more relaxed, conversational feel of an ad-libbed performance, while others prefer the polished feel of a scripted performance using a teleprompter. Try out both and see what works for you!

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