Teleprompting and Rhetoric

“We should outlaw teleprompters … for anybody running for president” – Donald Trump

“LOL Whut?” – Demosthenes

Cicero said Demosthenes “stood alone among the orators” and he may have been right. As a youth, Demosthenes had mild speech impediments, which he overcame by practicing

Demosthenes practicing oratory on the beach

Demosthenes practicing oratory on the beach

his oratory as he ran, or orating with pebbles in his mouth. One can almost picture Demosthenes, Rocky-like, running up the steps of the museum in Philadelphia, while orating his refutation of some political point or other.
Demosthenes also sold his art for money, as a logographer – a speechwriter – or speaking on other people’s behalf, as a sort of “stunt double” speaker.  Imagine if George W. Bush, during one of the presidential debates, had stepped back from the podium and said, “Now, to present my views: Demosthenes of Athens!” And the great orator held the audience in his hand for a second, then dropped them into Bush’s pocket.

Does that little scenario sort of bother you?

It bothers me.

And here’s why: we value oratory. We value a person who is articulate and who gives a great speech. Shakespeare’s amazing oratory still makes us shiver and Frederick Douglass’ speeches are still powerful enough to change people’s lives. I’m not sure what’s going on in the process of swaying a person by rhetoric and oratory, but that’s what it’s for: the speaker uses the passion of their delivery and the beauty of their words to sway the listener. I don’t want to risk being mistaken for an evolutionary psychologist, but maybe there’s some built-in behavior in people where we have a critical period in which we listen to our parents, and passionate and beautiful delivery taps into that instinct. I used to work with a guy who was deeply religious and was used to listening to modern southern baptist-style sermons, and I discovered that if I adopted a sermonic rythm in my speech I could convince him of nearly anything.

If we value something, and we act based on our valuing it, we are being cheated if that thing is misrepresented

Richard Feynman would say that’s marketing. He once referred to marketing as one of the few inherently immoral professions because in order to do it, you have to sell something as better than you know it to be. Marketing people may cry “unfair” at this characterization, but if you think that’s bad, try Bill Hicks’.*

If you didn’t feel Bush would have been cheating if he brought Demosthenes up to deliver his argument, would you feel Bush was cheating if Demosthenes wrote the argument, and delivered it? In which case, you know, Bush would be just like some kind of sock-puppet gaining credibility and stature based on his ability to hire a great orator.** Let’s continue with our experimental scenarios: what if a political candidate stood up at the podium and said “I’ve posted my working group’s ideas on our website. Go read them. Kthx.”  Then we’d probably still expect them to be well-written, clear and articulate. I’ve worked in various executive roles long enough to realize that a bad idea, passionately and articulately delivered, will always beat a brilliant idea delivered in a mumble.

I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with Donald Trump about something: “We should outlaw APPLAUSE-signteleprompters … for anybody running for president”  Because the teleprompter attempts to hide, it is therefore acknowledging it’s deceptive. When we watch Kenneth Branagh performing Shakespeare’s lines, we are not admiring Branagh for being Shakespeare, we are admiring Branagh’s performance. When we watch a political speech, how many people are aware that it’s a performance? If you really want to contextualize modern political speechifying it would be more like: “And now, to read the speech written by my writer room, Demosthenes of Athens!” (loud applause from the studio audience because the “applause” light comes on). The difference between theater and politics is that we know theater is theater. Most people don’t realize they are both theater.


“Bad performance by Crooked Hillary Clinton! Reading poorly from the telepromter! She doesn’t even look presidential!”

We’re treated to the spectacle of Donald Trump being right about something – while being completely wrong about a whole bunch more. This is the same Donald Trump whose bestseller “The Art Of The Deal” was ghost-written. This is the same Donald Trump whose wife’s convention speech was written by a speechwriter who apparently tried to rickroll the potential first lady. This is the same Donald Trump who is so concerned with keeping it real that he dyes himself a different color and has things done to his hair to make it look like how it doesn’t. He’s all about keeping it real, except he doesn’t actually like reality – which is entirely appropriate for a “reality television” star. The idea of being lectured on keeping things real by Donald Trump would be funny if it wasn’t so serious right now. It’s the pot calling the kettle an “immigrant”

So What Should We Do?

I consider speech-writers, writing rooms, teleprompters, and the other accoutrements of false oratory to be marketing: presenting the product as better than it is known to be. It’s a performance-enhancing drug and it’s had exactly the same effect on politics as performance-enhancing drugs do in sports: if you’re not cheating as well as everyone else, you don’t have a chance.

It’s too late to try to fix it. Oratory is dead.

We should assume that when a public figure is speechifying that they’re a hollywood special effect, an internet banner-ad, put up to manipulate us. Nothing more.

Once we acknowledge that the words of politicians are merely an artifact, and not necessarily anything they believe in, we are free to recognize them as such: performances. Which means that, like the words of Shakespeare, we can assess the performer and the writer separately.

(*I agree with Hicks)

(** This is also why we are unimpressed with Milo Yiannopolous, who had a “writer room” generating ‘his’ content. And they were mostly doing it ‘on spec’ – which is media for “unpaid”)


  1. Lofty says

    Thinking about “real” I’m reminded of my niece when she was just teenage. She had a cheap portable music player turned up to 11 and the sound was terribly distorted. When I chided her on the quality of reproduction she wailed “I just wanted it to sound real.” Seems like for some people “real” means “cheap, loud and in your face”.

    On the subject of oratory, I had high hopes for Australia’s prime minister Kevin Rudd from 2007, because he spoke so well. Sadly he turned out to be just another dud who thought he was god’s gift to the nation. Given a choice I refuse to listen to politicians at all now, they all disappoint in due course.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Good writing takes a serious amount of time. So does modern politicking – and, if done right, modern administration/legislation.

    Assuming the words reflect the topic at hand accurately and the speaker’s proposed solution(s) honestly, I have no qualms about supporting politicians who hire writers so they can do the rest of their jobs with diligence, as compared to those who put in hours every day in creating multiple drafts of selling themselves while paying no attention to actually accomplishing things.

  3. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#2:
    Assuming the words reflect the topic at hand accurately and the speaker’s proposed solution(s) honestly, I have no qualms about supporting politicians who hire writers so they can do the rest of their jobs with diligence

    Oh, I completely agree.
    I’d be super impressed if a politician walked up to the podium and said “I’ve got Lin-Manuel Miranda here to give you an update on our proposed policies. I’ll let him wow you and I’ll have my policy team come do a panel Q&A afterward. In the meantime I’m got to thrash those idiots in the Pentagon over their budget audit. Take it away, Lin-Manuel!!!!”

    With some exceptions (I believe that Obama is actually a very good speaker and writer and if he wanted to write all his own speeches, he’d do a great job of it) most of the politicians use of speechwriters and speechifying technology is to make them look smarter or wiser and more articulate than they are. That’s deceptive. Yes, I understand that “all politicians are deceptive” but I still don’t have to like it.

  4. says

    “I just wanted it to sound real.”

    That’s super interesting!!! I hesistate to try to translate but “it should sound like I want it to sound!” maybe? I encounter that every so often when people comment on artworks: “it should be like this, and that, and the other” – i.e: it should look like it would if I did it, assuming I knew how to do that.

  5. Lofty says

    I suspect “real” meant feeling like you’re in the actual presence of the noise music makers themselves. I’ve only been to one rock concert ever (Pink Floyd) and stood in the back row with my fingers firmly inserted in my ears. I only went because my older brother bought me a ticket. Nearly every other patron lapped up the brain altering din and added as much of their own as they could. Mass hysteria is a powerful thing and good orators know this very well.

    Oh and I still enjoy Pink Floyd, played at non damaging volume. The Wall is good stuff.

  6. Lofty says

    I suspect I’m overthinking things and “real” has been substituted for “authentic” by the advertisers that poison childrens minds. When I was a kid you didn’t have such dumbing down!

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    On further reflection: consider a (rather idealized) politician who, in the course of a day: sits on a committee investigating an agency’s problematic personnel policies; formulates a budget proposal; attends a hearing on proposed laws; responds to constituent concerns; and gives a public talk somewhere.

    In every one of those cases, the quality of the work done depends on staff support – the background briefing, the fine-print reading, the specialist’s advice, the red-tape cutting, the covering-three-points in six minutes. Can anybody reasonably expect one person to do all that alone – and do it, all of it, right – day after day?

    While I personally feel better about someone who can and does dig into the details at need, the do-it-all-yourselfer (as some say Jimmy Carter tried to be) ends up rather ineffectual all around. Somebody who can competently select and manage a good team does in fact represent more than an average individual, and I don’t agree that we should demand exceptions to that strategy in the public-presentation realm.

  8. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#9:
    Somebody who can competently select and manage a good team does in fact represent more than an average individual, and I don’t agree that we should demand exceptions to that strategy in the public-presentation realm.

    I agree. But yet, we have a carnival barker as the republican nominee.

    I guess my complaint boils down to “why do we expect rhetoric”? We really should expect excellence and – unless your job is rhetoric, leave the performances to the specialists.

    If I am elected president, I will not give any speeches. I will approve the work of my speechwriter’s room (who will be the best I can find) and turn it over to my delivery team, who will work with appropriate entertainment experts to deliver the speech. So I’ll have Daffy Duck deliver some speeches, John Lithgow deliver any speeches about red lectroids, and so forth, as appropriate. That would actually be kind of awesome: let entertainment stars vie to do the best job. “And now, Adele will deliver my speechwriting team’s interpretation of my policy on how heartbreaking these mass shootings are.”

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    … we have a carnival barker as the republican nominee.

    One who at least makes it very easy to tell which words came from a pro and which from his own fetid brain.

    That would actually be kind of awesome: let entertainment stars vie to do the best job.

    And it would also leave you more time to stroke your white Persian cat and plot diabolically.