The Presidents’ Speech

In my early days as CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi there were occasions on when I used a teleprompter; big formal occasion, new material, not a lot of time. I had a terrific operator, Rosie Williams from London. It’s years now since I have used one, but the occasions came back to me when I read this week that the inventor of the Teleprompter Hubert Schlafy has died at the age of 91 in Stamford Connecticut.

An innovative electrical engineer, Schlafy joined 20th Century Fox in New York City in 1947. According to the Associated Press’s obit, “Actor Fred Barton Jr. wanted a way to remember his lines and approached his friend Schlafly, said Laurie Brown, author of the book The Teleprompter Manual. Schafly conjured an idea and took it to Irving Berlin Kahn, nephew of composer Irving Berlin and vice president of radio and television at 20th Century Fox. The result – a monitor facing the person appearing on screen and rolling a script at reading speed – was named the TelePrompTer, which made its debut in 1950 on the soap opera The First Hundred Years.”

Schlafy and the team he was part of rescued decades’ worth of soap opera actors, newscasters and politicians from the embarrassment of stumbling over their words on live television. The teleprompter “revolutionized television and improved the quality of on-air performers”, said Jim Dufek, a professor of mass media at Southeast Missouri State University. “It also made the politicians look smarter because they were looking right into the camera.”

Herbert Hoover became the first politician to use a teleprompter in 1952, when the former president gave the keynote speech at the Republican National Convention in Chicago. Every President since has used the teleprompter – the current President so much that at the recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner he spoofed himself with a slick mock-movie trailer introducing a new film “The President’s Speech” which shows what would happen if Congress had defunded the president’s teleprompter.

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Kevin Roberts

Kevin Roberts is founder of Red Rose Consulting; business leader and educator; author and speaker; adviser on marketing, creative thinking and leadership.


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