A prompt success

I was observing some TV auditions recently where the presenter had to read from a prompt, and I felt some sympathy for the fragile performer under the glare of lights and onlookers reading from a screen – where it isn’t easy to scan entire sentences at once. Intonation, understanding and communication were made tricky for the presenter who faced unseen text and clunky sentences lacking sufficient punctuation and correct grammar –  and that were somewhat overlong. (Like the above!)

Where was the poor presenter going to pause for breath, let alone smile?

Presenters, when faced with reading from a prompt you can ask for a hard copy in advance – unless it’s for a broadcast journalism job where coping with breaking news is part of the skillset. If you familiarise yourself with the text before the audition it will be much easier to read from a scrolling screen because you will know what is coming next. If you’re not happy with the pace of the text or your performance during the screen test, don’t reveal this in your face or eyes (until after you hear the word ‘Cut’).

The scripts in your hand and on the prompt are from the same file, so look out for typos, overlong sentences and pronunciation issues before you face them on screen. Check punctuation, commas and full stops, read aloud to see where you can take a breath. Talk to the viewer, don’t read to them, and look through the words to find the camera lens.

Production teams, are you guilty of writing corporate speak, jargon or tongue twisters? Fine for reading alone, but not aloud. As TV is a conversational medium, try reading your scripts aloud before you press save, and spare a thought for presenters who can deliver a much better performance if given a little prep time beforehand.

Reading from a prompt

A couple of lucky presenters I’m training at the moment are working in TV production and able to practise reading from a prompt as part of their work experience. However, most presenters are expected to know how to read from a prompt before the audition or job. The screen test is not the place to reveal that you have never done this before, and time is too precious on a shoot to receive on the spot training.

What is a prompt? It is a device that scrolls the script in front of the camera lens enabling the presenter to read rather than having to memorise the words. When the camera is placed behind the prompt and the presenter’s eyeline is direct to the lens it should not look any different to presenting without a prompt. The words are visible on a screen that the presenter can see but the viewer cannot. Mrs Smith watching at home shouldn’t realise you are using a prompt, so allow your delivery to be as natural as possible. Whether the screen is a few feet or 30 feet away from you, if you have small head movements and are relating to the viewer they won’t be aware of your eyes scanning the words.

Prompting screens can also be mounted above the camera, usually during location shoots, or on a moving camera; this does not give such a direct eyeline from the presenter to the viewer, but with the right shot the viewer may not notice the difference.

Although prompts are often referred to as Autocue there are other companies that provide prompting equipment, such as Autoscript, Portaprompt and First-Take. Prompts can fit almost any size of camera from small semi-professional to large TV studio cameras. Screen sizes range from mini 3.5”, 5.6”, 8” or 9” screens for location use to typical studio screen sizes of 12”, 15”, 17”, 19” to huge, such as on ITV’s ‘Dancing on Ice’ where the studio is the size of a small aircraft hangar!  Recent updates include bright LED screens, PC and Mac versions, and even a spell-check variety.

Presenters unfamiliar with using a prompt often worry that it will go too fast for them to read comfortably. That shouldn’t happen – the prompt operator has to follow your reading.  So if you find the prompt is going too quickly what should you do – speed up to match the pace or slow down? Think about it!

Alternatively you may find that you are the controller – using a handheld wireless remote or a foot pedal under the presenting desk. The latest technology is voice activated, no foot or hand controls, with the prompt following the spoken word of the presenter.

How can you practise at home without access to a prompting screen? A basic exercise is to read aloud. We normally read in our heads but by reading aloud you can develop your sight-reading, voice and breathing techniques. When you see a comma, pause, when you see a full stop – stop! Don’t forget to breathe! Have a good reservoir of breath by using your abdomen. Find a balance between a pace that the viewer can follow, while keeping up a good energy.

There is a great resource www.cueprompter.com – a free online teleprompter. You can type in or copy and paste some written material into the window, set the scroll speed and start to read from a moving script! It has a maximum of 2000 characters and it’s fun to experiment with the different speed settings. You could record yourself using a webcam, which although not directly in your eyeline, will give you an idea of how you look and sound when reading.

One common pitfall is that the expression can become ‘frozen’ and the eyes can look ‘glazed’. Do your best to relax the face and eyes, maintaining a conversational delivery. Read with interest, using good modulation and intonation.

Prompting software has a range of font sizes, inverse, underline, bold, italic, different foreground/background colours, so if you are short-sighted and your co-presenter is long-sighted or even dyslexic, the script appearance can be tailored to your preferences. Some presenters write words phonetically to aid pronunciation, or use capitals for emphasis. When writing scripts for a prompt keep them simple, especially as the entire sentence may not be visible at once on the prompting screen.

You can customise your script to assist your performance. As a Director I added helpful instructions to the prompt, such as ‘Turn to camera 3’ – you could include a note to self, for example, ‘Breathe’, ‘Pause’, ‘Smile!’

If you want to take it further you could explore various prompting websites to familiarise yourself with the equipment. Perhaps you could get together with like-minded friends/presenters and hire the kit for half a day, which would cost in the region of £225 including all prompting equipment and an operator. Prices vary, and check whether travel and VAT are included.

Putting all technology aside for a moment, the main aim is to be a winning presenter, so look through the words to the lens behind the prompt. Remember Mrs. Smith? She wants to feel that you are talking to her, not reading to her, and that is the key to reading from a prompt successfully.

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