Death by Autocue

An ability to stare down the barrel of a camera, or hold eye contact with a crowd while delivering a long and perfectly flawless speech is an enviable skill to have.  It is also a skill that most of us don’t naturally possess!

The autocue may not count as one of man’s greatest adventures, but without it the majority of politicians, business leaders and A-listers taking the stage would be putting in a great many more underwhelming performances.

As we ride the red carpet with A-listers from the world of acting and music this award season, we get to hear a lot of speeches. Aside from one or two stand out moments, we have to endure oodles of mediocrity and thank yous to people we have never heard of. Fortunately however, there are occasionally some real toe curlers to give us something to really talk about.

We’ve already had one autocue moment this season. National lovely Joanna Lumley was seemingly snubbed by “hottest actress on the planet… the ravishing Jennifer Lawrence” when she introduced her at the BAFTAS. Miss Lawrence replied that her introduction was “a bit much” and Twitter erupted over the rather non-event. Of course, Joanna was only reading the script, off the autocue, because that’s what presenters do at awards ceremonies.

The autocue has been saving blushes since it was invented in the 1950s as an aid for American TV actors who had trouble remembering their lines. Best friend for most of the time, the autocue can also be a false friend at others, which has disastrous consequences if the world is watching! Here’s a roundup of occasions when the ghost in the machine strikes!

– The Wrong Lines: Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie, who starred together in The Wolf of Wall Street, fell victim to autocue mispick in 2014 when their autocue started to feed them lines that were meant for a later award segment.  It could have been an awkward moment, but Jonah Hill showed how to recover such a situation by revealing the cock up to the audience. “I’m not going to lie to you,” he grinned. “Right now they’ve put the wrong stuff up on the teleprompter.” Cue audience laughter.

– Humour By Robot: Fact. Jokes will die a death by autocue. The list of casualties is significant and from Patrick Stewart to Davina McCall, jokes that look good on paper have fallen like a lead balloons when delivered from the teleprompter because effective humour relies on a rather important ingredient called timing. Trying to shoehorn a laugh into a convenient slot is always going to be a hit or miss affair – mainly miss. After half a century of autocue use, you would‘ve thought scriptwriters would be more savvy to this fact, but they’re not.

– Technology failure: Hey, it happens. Anyone who has ever done public speaking that has required some tech will be prepared for something to go wrong. How many times have I heard ‘Can you hear me at the back?’ or ‘Well, I was going to show some slides…’? When the autocue goes down, it will take whoever is staring into it at the time.

– Wooden Performance:  The Brit Awards of 1989 provided something of a ‘how not to do award ceremonies’ tutorial when ageing rocker, Mick Fleetwood, and Page 3 girl, Sam Fox, were mismatched as hosts. On that occasion the autocue wasn’t working properly leading them to announce the wrong guests and repeatedly fluff lines. When the autocue did work, Mr Fleetwood’s performance was so wooden one expected Gepetto to be waiting in the wings.  

My best advice for those Oscar presenters, being fitted out in their gowns and suits, is don’t forget to pack a crib sheet – you never know when you may need one!

Luan de Burgh

March 2018

Luan de Burgh is a speaker, writer and founder of de Burgh Training – a specialist business communication training provider dedicated to helping people perform at their highest potential.