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Dennis Myers: Speechmaking errors are difficult to hide

During the July 4 celebration on the D.C. mall, an event at which presidents previously sat in the audience and let the performers have the limelight, Donald Trump stepped up and made a political speech in which he attacked Democrats for showing restraint in military spending.

The speech quickly came back and bit him. In it, he claimed 1775 colonial troops “took over the airports.”

He later blamed the teleprompter, which does not explain why he was not paying attention to what was ON the prompter and just read what was there.

This is an era when journalists and political opponents scrutinize political speeches with microscopes, looking for hidden meanings that the speaker may not have intended as well as outright mistakes, thus often missing the intended theme.

But even before this polarized era, mistakes in speeches were difficult to hide.

Once in the 1980s, Nevada Gov. Richard Bryan gave his message to the legislature and there was a rather large error. There was no teleprompter, and Bryan carried his reading copy of the speech into the Assembly hall in a binder. His staff had put each page in a mylar sleeve.

Two of those pages stuck together and Bryan turned the page without realizing it. The audience did not notice and it would have passed without comment except that reporters were following the speech on their advance copies. There were stories the next day.

In 1956, Sen. John Kennedy of Massachusetts was going to make the presidential nominating speech at the Democratic National Convention for Adlai Stevenson. A speech supplied by the Stevenson staff was deemed inadequate, and Kennedy and his speechwriter Ted Sorensen wrote a new one.

When they arrived at the convention hall, one page was missing from JFK’s reading copy. He was assured the copy was on the teleprompter but he refused to go on without a full print copy. He coolly waited while a copy was typed (by a reporter!) from the teleprompter version. His caution was wise – the prompter failed during his speech.

There are some sites on the internet that have posted supposed humorous teleprompter errors, and in many of them, they are not actually prompter mistakes.

They are errors in the envelope when Academy Awards are given out, or mispronunciations, or whatever, added to fill out the list because there really haven’t been all that many prompter errors. One rather famous one has a network anchor reading “Vatican eleven” off the teleprompter text that said “Vatican II.” That can be solved by spelling everything out – as in “Vatican Two.”

Trump-style errors can be avoided by following a rule that some sites offer: “Teleprompter Mistake #8: Reading off Your Teleprompter Word-for-Word.”

In other words, just pay attention.

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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