Ear-Prompter proficiency is a great skill to have as a host, even though you don’t see them as much being used on sets. Of course, there are still IFB (which stands for either “interrupt for broadcast” or “interruptible feedback/foldback” depending on who in the industry you are asking), which is the inner ear device that allows producers or directors to communicate with on-air talent while they are on camera.
Ear-Prompters are different than IFB inner-ear devices, though to the untrained eye, they look very much the same. Ear-prompters are actually an inner ear device that is plugged into a recorder, much like you would one you would record voice memos into to remember things or do audio taping of interviews back in the day. With ear-prompter, you are actually speaking a script into the recording device, then plugging in the inner-ear device, and playing your own recording of your script back to yourself as you talk 3-4 words behind yourself. Yes, you are actually listening to yourself, and speaking what you hear at the same time. Not an easy skill, but once you have it, you have it. It’s kind of like riding a bike. And like riding a bike or any skill, some people pick it up faster than others.
I’m going to give you some basic technique as well as the equipment you can buy for an ear-prompter set up to have at home and start practicing.
Ok, here is a pic of a wired ear-prompter and recorder. They also have wireless ear-prompter earpieces as well. You can see the recorders can either be old-school tape recorders, which some prefer because they are easy to pause and even rewind slightly during a performance. Another advantage of a tape recorder is that you can fast forward to a specific place and re-record from there if only part of the script changes. With digital, that is not a possibility.
I personally, do NOT want to mess with my prompter once I start using it, so I prefer using the digital recorders, even if it means having to “re-load’ or re-record my script from the beginning if there’s a change. The other downside to a tape recorder device is that they don’t make them anymore. So, if you are using one, it’s either old, refurbished, or has been sitting on a shelf for a LONG time. So the chances of it breaking during a gig, or heaven forbid a performance, is too high for me to risk. That being said, I still know a lot of seasoned presenters that only use the tape recorders, so you can decide what is best for you.
The 411 on loading and performer a script with ear-prompter:
Make sure nothing is plugged into the recorder. This might seem obvious, but if the earpiece is plugged in while you are recording you will either not have sound or it will sound muffled.
Don’t hold the recorder too close to your mouth. Hold the recorder about 6-8 inches from your mouth at chin height with the recorder in horizontal position (not vertical facing you as this increases lip smacking and mouth noise).
Give yourself time to settle. Countdown 5-4-3-2-1 outloud before beginning to read your copy if it’s for a live presentation. If you are using the script for on-camera, countdown 3-2-1 outloud. This give you time once you press play to put the recorder back in a hidden place during your performance (you do more time for a live show because you also may have to cue media or turn on your mic).
Read more slowly than normal. Read the script about 15-20% slower than you would normally perform it. You may have to adjust this later once you start performing it and see if it needs to be a hair faster or slower, but this is a good place to start.
Read the script WITHOUT INFLECTION: You want to read without inflection because it allows you to put your own spin on it in the moment. If you load your script into the prompter with a performance, you will be locked into that way of doing it.
Make a noticeable noise for cues. If you have a powerpoint presentation that you need to cue yourself to change slides or you need to remind yourself to take a certain action in a script (turn something on, gesture to something, etc), make sure you do a cue you are going to notice. Words like “beep”, “ding”, or “click” are great options. Also words like “beat” or “pause” are good to put in during a transition. And you can even give yourself those directions like “point”, “sit”, “start”. The key of all this is you HAVE to say it in a different tone or voice. If is loaded into your recorder in the same tone you are delivering your script, you are just going to say the word instead of your brain realizing it’s a direction and not something that is going to be said. Trust me, once you start prompter you are going to start relying on the words you hear and repeating them. You don’t want to start saying your directions to yourself! Going in a really low or really high pitch or just using a silly voice or tone is going to break up the sound of those directions so your brain will hear it as unique from the script and actually prompt you to take that action.
Barbie & Ken Scripts: This is an term in the convention and trade-show industry for a co-hosted script, most often delivered by a man and woman. Hence the term Barbie and Ken. When you are doing a co-hosted script, sit side by side with your co-host and record together with both recorders equidistant from both of your mouths at that 6-8 inches away from your chin. Do the countdown together and then each will read their lines while both recorders are recording simultaneously. This will ensure you have the same timing for your performance.
Another great thing to consider when using an ear-prompter is earplugs. You may be performing in a noisy venue, so drowning out noise around you is really important to make it easier to hear your promper. It’s also REALLY tiring for the brain to struggle to make out the words. I recommend ear plugs even on a quiet set because I think creating an environment where all you hear is the recording is easiest. I even know some performers who use the earpiece in both ears (what we can in the business as going “in-stereo” with our prompter) because they feel that they get less tired and it’s less work for their brain when BOTH ears are hearing the script instead of just one.
Lastly, wear clothes that allow you to place your prompter somewhere. There are thigh and waist straps on the market for ladies that have a place to slide the recorder, so that’s an option. But sometimes just wearing a blazer that has inside pocket or slacks with a back pocket is the easiest way to go. Men don’t typically have trouble with this as most of their pants have pockets and their jackets have inside pockets, but it’s still worth noting. The goal is to make the prompter set-up as unnoticeable as possible. If you are using a wired earpiece, run the wire down your back, under your clothing and have it come out your shirt and go into your back pocket or inside jacket pocket. We don’t want the audience to see how the magic is made!
P.S. Val at Location Sound is the best in the biz if you want help getting your ear-prompter: https://www.locationsound.com.