This is a question that is increasingly coming up when we speak to clients about presentation skills, hosting webinars and creating videos for both internal and external audiences.
We always stress that to create the most natural performance, spokespeople should avoid using autocues.
But they do have their place, particularly when the situation calls for precise wording.
So, what type of autocue should you use, and what do you need to know to produce a compelling performance?
Let’s start by looking at the different types of autocues.
Camera mounted – with this style of autocue, the words are projected on to the camera lens. It means the speaker looks right down the lens when they speak and can maintain that all-important eye contact with their audience.
Floor or standing – these are mounted at an angle on the floor. The weakness with this version is that speakers tend to look down a lot to read the text and lose eye contact with the audience.
Presidential – sometimes also referred to as a ‘podium’ autocue, this can help speakers appear like they are delivering a speech from memory. They work in a similar way to the camera-mounted systems but are standalone devices mounted on glass panels on either side of the podium, at eye level.
Online – online meetings have become the ‘new normal’ over the past year, and we are probably all familiar with speakers looking away from the screen to check notes and work out what they are going to say next. It can be pretty distracting. But there are now autocues which project your script in a browser window over your Zoom or Teams meeting.
As you can see, there are plenty of options.
But should you use them?
This is going to come down to confidence, experience levels and the subject you are discussing.
We often find on our presentation skills training that people are worried about using lots of filler words, forgetting what they want to say and saying the wrong thing.
Using an autocue can help resolve those issues and enable speakers to communicate with clarity and confidence.
But it can also lead to stiff, robotic performances, devoid of emotion and feeling.
And that can make the words feel hollow and insincere and leave the audience with the wrong impression.
One of my favourite autocue fails saw BBC newsreader Gavin Grey, endure a bit of a Ron Burgandy moment, and read the phrase “pause for effect” aloud. Like all great professionals, he recovered smoothly. But it shows how easy it can be to slip up with an autocue and create the impression you are simply reading aloud.
There is also a risk that if the autocue stops working, the speaker will not know what to say or say the wrong thing.
Donald Trump famously blamed an autocue for going “kaput” after telling crowds the Continental Army “took over the airports” during the American Revolutionary War in the 1770s.
But this does not mean they should be disregarded. If you are hosting an online meeting, let’s say about potential job losses, where every word matters and accuracy is vital, then using an autocue could be beneficial. Or, perhaps better in this instance, would be to use an autocue just for the section that you know you have to deliver verbatim.
Over the past few years, we have seen the rise of CEOs producing apology videos when their organisation is making headlines for the wrong reasons. Again, an autocue can be useful here for polished delivery and ensuring the right things are said.
If you are going to use one, you don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you are learning how to do it when you need it.
A crisis video or crucial meeting is not the time to discover whether you can use it effectively.
Training in advance is crucial, and we can devise a course to meet your exact needs and the formats where you are thinking of using an autocue.
But in the meantime, here are a few tips to get you started.
Autocue scripts should be kept conversational and use the words and phrases the person reading the words would say.
Formal written language will not help to create a human performance, however good your spokesperson is.
The best approach is for whoever is going to be delivering the words to write the script. But we know that is not always possible.
However, they should at least go through and edit the script, using their language and adding personal anecdotes and stories where appropriate.
You don’t have to say everything on the autocue.
There may be parts where you feel happier being scripted.
But there may be other sections, particularly when you are bringing in examples and personal anecdotes, where you could be more comfortable – and natural – being unscripted.
You can identify these parts by marking them with something like TELL PERSONAL STORY here on the autocue.
You could also simply use the autocue to remind yourself, in a bullet point format, of the main points you want to get across, rather than running a script on it.
Good eye contact is crucial, particularly when you are delivering bad news.
It may sound awkward, but a great way to maintain eye-contact is to imagine the screen is someone’s face and focus on the middle of it, rather than scanning the whole text.
We mentioned earlier the newsreader who read out “pause for effect” from his script.
It is a reminder that any technical instructions in your text need to be easily distinguishable from the words you need to read aloud.
Perhaps put them all in capitals as we did with ‘TELL PERSONAL STORY’ in our earlier bullet.
Positioning is crucial here. Set the autocue up as close to the webcam as possible and place the meeting window towards the bottom. A set-up like this will limit distracting eye movements.
Swan neck webcam mounts can help here as they allow you to put the webcam right in front of your monitor.
We’ve said this often in our blogs, but whether you are about to give a media interview, deliver a presentation, or create a video on your smartphone, you need to rehearse. And then rehearse again.
The more you practise with an autocue, the more confident you will feel and the more natural the finished product will feel.
Practising should involve saying the words out loud and not just going through the script in your head.
If you are going to control the speed of the autocue yourself, then this is likely to take some time to get right. If an operator will be doing that for you, you must rehearse together.
But what if it goes wrong and your autocue breaks down?
If you are making a pre-recorded video, you can stop filming and start again when the issue is fixed.
But it is more challenging when you are giving a presentation or leading an online meeting.
The key is to remain calm and not become focused on trying to fix the error.
Have some script notes next to you and use them to pick up from where the autocue failed.