Advice:  on Public Speaking

by Ron Plachno



COPYRIGHT NOTICE:  Please note that this article should be considered copyrighted by myself, Ron Plachno, and please treat all articles in this section that way.  It contains parts, if not word for word, directly from my second book, Strategies I Learned Becoming a VP.

Am I a great public speaker? Some say I did well at times, but I would never call myself a great public speaker. However I did learn a few things along the way. The first is that after your first thousand public speeches, it does become easier. Okay, you say, that did not help. Some thoughts for beginnings and intermediate and beyond.


I agree that it has been long since my first public speeches. I do remember the terror and wondering how to approach it. Two things that come to mind. If it is a subject that you care about it is far, far easier to give a speech. The second is that even a speech genius generally needs some "aids" to keep on track. Perhaps a person begins their speech career reading a speech, but then it is best to get to just key bullet points as a helpful aid as soon as one can. Some approaches:

Memorizing a Speech Word for Word - few people do that. I understand that some stand up comics do that since they likely have no choice. But this can also lead to problems. I recall once a very practiced comic, Rita Rudner, I think it was, saying that her comedy act was about an hour or an hour and a half long. She said one day that it is impossible to make it longer or shorter or just not easy to change. So memorizing something word for word may not lead to safety. For example, what if a leader says "speed this up would you" and you do not know how. I only suggest memorizing the speech word for word for those people who like comedians may have no choice.

Writing it All Down and Reading it - This might be where we all start. And perhaps few would give the person a hard time. But if doing this remember that the biggest problem is losing your place. And that is easy to do if you try and look up to the people at all. One suggestion is that even if it is all written out, have it arranged in writing so you can quickly find your place. Perhaps you are talking about a location and you have some words on history, current plans, and future predictions. Perhaps you then break your written talk into three pages and write 1: History, 2: Current Plans and 3: Future Predictions in bigger letters on top of the three pages. Now if you lose your place in reading since you just looked up, ask yourself where you logically were. You were halfway through history when you looked up? Then maybe look halfway down the history page. Or if you cannot find your place on the history page could you simply begin anew with the page 2 on current plans and try to seam it together? Anyway, instead of trying to just write it all out, try to write it out in a logical manner such that you can find your place quickly.

Bullet Points - This is the point to get to as soon as you are comfortable. This means that instead of memorizing it all or writing it all down, you just have bullet points - of what the main subjects are that you are going to talk about. And then you see the bullet point and just begin talking about that subject in your own words while looking around the room. And when done with that subject, look down for the next bullet point. Note that bullet points might be on a piece of paper, or a 3 x 5 card, or written on your wrist, or it could be by a visual aid such as a viewgraph or slide show or the modern computer PowerPoint equivalent of all of that. Many accomplished speakers use a PowerPoint visual show not only to help their listeners, but also to keep themselves on track for what the next subject is.


For an intermediate person who has given a few speeches, well then I would give three recommendations. if you have time before the speech, consider example 1, learning yourself and advice from Sun Tzu. If however you are to give a speech in just minutes and you had not prepared, then consider example 2, Please Your Audience. It beats trying to fight your audience especially if you have no time to be too clever. I did add an example 3, Teleprompter Speech.


Sun Tzu wrote a famous book called "The Art of War" in China about 500 BC. I read the book long ago wondering why it was so famous. Now I may not recall all that it said, or I may now be confused, but the book to me seemed mostly an exercise in common sense. That means to me that the book has more meaning than just how to win wars in 500 BC.

As I recall the book would say things such that if there was bright sun out, ensure that the sun was in your enemies eyes and not your own eyes. And if the war was on a hill, ensure that you are on the high ground and not the lower ground. I read this all as common sense. Now I do not intend to go to war or hurt anyone. But what I read into this book was: "Put yourself at your best". And some side points of that are - first learn who you are, what you are good at and what you are bad at. Then arrange as much as you can to achieve fair and honest success at work, or in this case, during public speaking.

I recall when after reading this book I tried to use its principles. I was a Vice President at the time and had 2500 people in my group. All of us managers agreed that each month every employee in our plant should hear how the business was doing, how we were doing on goals, what news there was and be allowed to ask questions. And so I asked myself how best to do that. Some others similar to me would have meetings in our giant cafeterias. I found that would not work for me. It was something about people walking in and out and making noise while I was talking that I found distracting and did not put me at my best. I also knew that even though I had no rare diseases, that if I held something in my hands, that over time my hand would begin shaking and I could not stop it.

And so what would Sun Tzu do? Well, he would arrange things to put me at my best. And that is what I did. I found the largest conference room on our campus and it held 250 people at once. Fine. I would do 10 meetings each month within 3 days of each other of 250 each and I would not start talking till the doors were closed. Then I ensured I never held any paper in my hand. Instead I used viewgraphs. Since I had given a number of speeches in the past, what I needed was something to keep me organized to go from one subject to the next. Viewgraphs did that for me. There were few words on them, but they gave the subjects. And so the meetings put me at my best. The audience thought the viewgraphs were for them. Yes, but also for me. I held nothing in my hands but walked around the room. The doors were closed. It was the best environment for me. At times later people would tell me I was a good speaker. Thanks. But perhaps what they did not know, is that much in the room was arranged to put me at my best. Sun Tzu would be proud.


If you have to give a quick speech because someone asked you to, please your audience instead of fighting them. How? Remember that the favorite subject of most people is "themselves". So, talk about them and compliment them.

Example 2a: - The funeral or wedding speech. What do those two have in common? Well, if someone asks you to say a few words at a public but family type gathering, here is my advice. First of all compliment the people who came from a great distance to be there, or who gave things up to be in attendance. Then simply thank everyone (all) for coming there to be in attendance since they gave their time. Allow time for people to clap for them or to at least look around and sort of thank them. If the item is catered you might consider thanking the people who helped put the affair together. People like when they are being congratulated. After you do this and people are at ease and many are glad they were just thanked for coming, now you might just add a little bit on your own now that you feel comfortable. Then smile and get off the stage. They will like that also.

Example 2b: I at times had to give speeches when given no notice. The most bizarre was when I was in Hangzhou China for Motorola and our licensee there, Eastcom I believe, had just opened a cellular base station plant working with us. This was the grand opening. During a tour of the facility, my boss asked me if I would say a few words at the opening ceremony a few minutes from the moment he asked me. I said that I would. Now, there was no time to plan. While I was a Vice President at the time, I was the lowest ranking Vice President there. I just assumed that I would be lost in the crowd and no one would even notice me. Famous last words, or thoughts. So in just a few minutes we went outside and it was clear that they were going to put on a show. Directly in front were several microphones. Directly in front of that were all of the workers from the plant. To my right was a Chinese brass band playing an entrance number. To my left was a cyclone type metal fence with residents of Hangzhou China pressed against it as far as I could see. Okay, so this was not a small affair. Then it got more serious. I found out that there were only going to be three speakers that day, and the other two were Chinese. And so I was the only American (or British speaker) there.

So getting a grip and almost laughing to myself that I had been set up I decided to make the best of it. Then I got lucky. Since I was an American from Britain and this was China, I would be working through an interpreter. Have you ever worked through an interpreter? I have done so a number of times since our business was international. It can be easy if you do it right. You say one sentence and smile. The interpreter then speaks and translates while you smile and have time to think about what you are going to say for your next sentence. Yes I smiled, but let me be clear. That helped a great deal. And not only did I have an interpreter, I was given what I considered the best I had ever seen. I had met this Chinese lady interpreter before. She makes an art of her business. Not only is her English perfect, she also knows our slang, our habits, and likely knows quite a lot about what makes Americans tick. In short, she was beyond great. Yes! So some features. Anyway, I did what I suggested above when there is no time to prepare. I first of all thanked the hard workers from the plant who tirelessly worked to make it a great start on the first day. Then the interpreter said all that. Then I smiled while people clapped for the hard plant workers. Next I complimented the local Chinese cellular companies for what seemed to me like a great system - that my cellular phone calls just went through effortlessly even tying back to home registration in the UK. What a great job they did. The translator translated, the people clapped and smiled. Next I think I complimented the people who had invested in this licensee business. Actually, I am not sure who I complimented third but I did do a third. This time the interpreter started to stare at me for a second like what was I doing? And my boss then tapped me and said I was going too far. Ha ha. He was jealous. Again the people loved it and clapped. And of course then I thanked them and stopped and bowed or whatever and they loved it. I then found out I made the Hangzhou papers. The papers were all in Chinese characters of course except for my name which appeared in English a few times.

The photo at the left was sent to me as part of the Hangzhou newspaper coverage of the plant opening and the speech.  No, that was not me at the microphone, but I believe one of the Chinese speakers.  I was in the back row of this photo, I believe the left most of the two dark suits left of center.

In sort of typical Asian fashion, they sometimes combine Congi characters with English characters, and you can see that the English characters are my name.   Well, also in English characters was the type of cellular system to be used:  GSM. 

My advice? I cannot suggest this strongly enough. If you are put on the spot for a quick speech, do not go negative - that is too dangerous. Instead try to find something to compliment the local people and group on - hard work, travelling to this place, their caring, their contributions, something. People are always the happiest ..... when you talk about them. And when given short notice, that is a very good strategy.


I once had to be one of perhaps 6 speakers at a Motorola Patent Dinner in a huge fancy Chicago area hotel for engineers and scientists who had received patents and had their spouses - husbands or wives- along.  I normally would not have done this speech, but my boss was not able to do it and asked me to do it for him. I was fine with that and agreed. There was no information at all before the night of the dinner. Before the patent dinner started, the teleprompter team wanted 15 minutes or less with me. They wanted me to practice reading from two glass (or plastic?) teleprompters, one on each side of me, that would contain the very same words. I found it.... easy... and adjusted easily to the scrolling words.  Basically what one does is pretend they are looking to the right and read from the right teleprompter, and then look to the left as if you are at ease looking around and read from the left teleprompter. And it took little practice. If someone asked me what it took, I would say "nerve". It mostly just takes nerve. You have to assume that the people in the back are feeding you words. And now you are a play actor, pretending to look around the room but really reading from the right and the left. I was soon mostly at ease, even though I had not a single word of that thing memorized. But of course, I would not go on without the 10 or 15 minutes practice that one time. What gets teleprompter engineers mad? If you veer from the script. They had no worries with me except just slight word changes when I would shake the hand of the winners. Once one gets comfortable, of course some of your own words of thanks come out. But they told me a former boss of mine and a friend was just "trouble" that he kept veering from the script. Well, not sure I would advise it. At some point maybe the whole team gets confused. Anyway, that is my advice if giving a teleprompter speech. Do the rehearsal if you never did it before. Ensure the team in the back room is on your side. And then smile and have the nerve to read and look at ease.


Scene of myself (Ron Plachno) speaking via teleprompter at the Motorola Patent Dinner
This photo?  original videotape copy of dinner given me, to DVD format, then to chosen still frame
(no photo shopping used at all on the final photo.  However, I did pick a "still" video frame where I was smiling.)

After all of that - again I would not say I was a great speaker at all. I survived, and in fact often had decent grades on this. Of course that does not mean I want more of this... ha ha. Let another person do it now. What is it people say? You spend half your life getting your name into print and the other half getting it out. Someone else's turn now for the adrenalin rushes.

Ronald J. Plachno

November 3, 2013

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