The awkward Michael Bay teleprompter moment has been shared worldwide, yet it could have been easily prevented.
Director Michael Bay spoke briefly at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), to talk about the new large screen curved displays from Samsung. The talk was streamed live. Michael was supposed to read from a downstage monitor (DSM.) Apparently, when Bay jumped ahead in his script, the teleprompter operator tried to find a place for Michael to regain sync. After a few moments of uncomfortable ad libs, Michael apologized and left the stage. Many people have since commented that they recognized the signs of a panic attack. Watch this video, then I’ll talk about how to prevent something like this unfortunate experience.
I’ve been teleprompting live events like these for over 20 years. Since I don’t know the teleprompter operator at the venue, I can’t speak to what actually happened. However, in my experience, many things can prevent this. The first, is to do at least two full length rehearsals. When you’re dealing with high level celebrities, their assistants and schedules often leave little or no time for these rehearsals. People assume that speaking on stage using a teleprompter is easy and may decide to just “wing it.” A full rehearsal covers everything a speaker does on stage: their walk-on music, roll-in videos, moving lights, their script start to finish, their slides, plus interacting other speakers or any objects on stage like the monitors here. Full rehearsals are critical for situations like this where Michael Bay was reading what someone else wrote.
Have someone who knows the teleprompter script at your side
Because the DSM teleprompter equipment only displays a portion of the entire script, the speaker is reliant on the teleprompter operator to show the current lines. When we do these shows like this, usually after rehearsal, we’ll be very familiar with the script and can recognize when the presenter jumps off script to ad lib. We’ll wait and then when they begin reading again, we start scrolling the script again in sync with them. However, there are some shows where the script is complicated, the content confusing, or where there are many speakers. In these cases we get either an assistant or someone from the client’s team who will sit next to us. Having someone who really knows the script and product (or even the speaker) can help in deciding when to move forward.
Listen for clues after Michael Bay exits
Bay left Samsung Executive Vice President Joe Stinziano alone on the cavernous stage. While Stinziano was not comfortable, he clearly has experience with a teleprompter and speaking publicly. Most importantly, he stays focused on his intention. Around 1:39 on the video, you’ll hear him say “Look, how about right there.” He’s likely talking to the teleprompter operator, who was moving the script forward to find an acceptable spot to get back in sync. This event will actually be the catalyst for my future talks with speakers “If we get out of sync, here’s how we handle it…”
Have a backup plan and stay in control
Yes, most speakers rely on the teleprompter operator and equipment to function perfectly. However, this is a great example of why I always suggest my speakers have a printed copy of their script in 18 point font at the lectern. In this case, since the presenters wandered freely about the stage, notecards with bullet points would be great to have in a pocket.
Ultimately, the presenters need to be clear on what the intention of the speech is. In this case, the intention could have been to introduce why a curved TV makes the most sense for displaying Hollywood blockbusters. If somehow the speaker and teleprompter operator get out of sync, the speaker should just step back, make a joke, ad lib a little and give the operator a chance to find out where to come back to. Michael Bay and his aborted speech is a perfect counterpoint to Bill Clinton. The President said that he uses his teleprompter as just that—something to prompt him on what he already knew to say. It wasn’t a word-for-word life support.
A similar show with similar high stakes with a better ending.
I did a show once in Mexico where the Mayor of Lima, Peru was addressing the Pan American Games Committee in hopes of hosting the 2015 games in his city. This was a very important speech with pride, jobs, and millions of dollars at stake. We had rehearsed plenty, in fact an entire week ahead of time. However, during the event, the Mayor went off his teleprompter script, suddenly jumping approximately five paragraphs ahead. By the time I found where he was, he had panicked and was talking about something else. Luckily he was comfortable with the script and material, and could ad lib without the audience suspecting much.
What I did was to gently scroll his teleprompter script back and forth until he found something he could latch on to. Once he found that phrase, he stayed locked with me the entire rest of the speech. When the applause was over, he came backstage and clasped me in a long bear hug that spoke volumes about our invisible dance.
Watch how Joe Biden handles a similar situation with humor.
Seriously, he comes off grandfatherly, but he masterfully catches his teleprompter being out of sync, makes light of it, and carries on.
So what are the lessons from this uncomfortable CES stage show?
Avoid awkward disasters like the Michael Bay CES speech by running full rehearsals, being clear on the intention of the speech, and having a back-up plan if sync is lost between the speaker and teleprompter operator.