You Can Prepare to Speak Off the Cuff — Here’s How.

I know what you’re thinking. I’m fine giving a speech when I have time to prepare. But a lot of my important speaking happens extemporaneously, at meetings and on phone calls. Indeed, speaking off the cuff is different from prepared speaking. Regardless of your industry or job, all of us speak off the cuff every single day.

It looks like this: during a meeting, your boss asks “So, what do you recommend?” in front of your colleagues. You’re on a call and the client asks you a challenging question. You’re at a rally or demonstration and are so overwhelmed with purpose that you take the mic and start speaking from the heart while the cameras are rolling.

Each of these moments of impromptu speaking offers an opportunity to build a relationship of trust with your colleagues, clients, or community members. How you communicate in those situations – your confident voice, your conversational tone, your concise answer – builds trust.

But impromptu speaking comes with challenges. One of the biggest fears in public speaking is not having enough time to prepare. Impromptu speaking is, by definition, speaking without any preparation. In addition, people don’t necessarily have a framework for handling impromptu speaking, so they simply say whatever is on their mind, for better or worse.

There’s hope: there are frameworks for speaking off the cuff and you can practice being in those situations.

How to Approach Impromptu Speaking 

Prepare for it. One executive I worked with was deathly afraid of public speaking early in her career, so she decided to make progress slowly. One particular step she took was to come to every single meeting prepared with one or two points she would make. When she spoke up in the meetings, she sounded thoughtful, eloquent, and, ironically, spontaneous.

If you’re attending a meeting or conference, ask yourself: “What is my goal for this meeting, and what would I like to say?” Write down a few ideas and practice them out loud. Talk through them with a colleague who knows the context.

Practice it. Practicing impromptu speaking is one of the most entertaining parts of our workshops. We do improv exercises to help people think and laugh on their feet. Want to practice being unprepared? Partner up with a colleague and have them pepper you with questions and give feedback on your responses.

Be Present. When I go to a conference, I like to ask a question in nearly every session. It’s a way to deepen my knowledge and also increase my networking contacts. As I sit in the audience, I start to think of a question. I write down a few notes and, when the moderator asks for audience questions, I raise my hand high.

The PREP Formula 

My favorite framework for public speaking I learned from Toastmasters International and have used ever since. It’s easy to learn and easy to use in nearly any professional or personal setting. It provides a quick framework for getting to the point and staying on point.

It’s called PREP, which stands for: Point, Reason, Example, and Point.

  • Point: Make one point. I believe that…
  • Reason: Provide an explanation of your belief. And the reason I believe that is because…
  • Example: Tell a story or anecdote that illustrates that point. For example, just last week…
  • Point: Conclude by restating your point. And that is why I believe…

Let’s look at an example of PREP in response to the question How do you feel about living in a big city?

  • Point: I love living in a big city.
  • Reason: And the reason is because you can walk everywhere instead of driving.
  • Example: For example, last week I finally sold my car because my new office is a thirty-minute walk from my apartment. I get fresh air every single day.
  • Point: And that is why I love living in a big city.

Easy, right? You can use that framework for any subject, from talking about your favorite color to opining on multilateral trade negotiations.

Transition Phrases

You can also use a transition phrase to give yourself time to think of your answer. There are different types of transition phrases which can guide your audience to your answer.

  • Summary: Thank you, I’d be happy to talk about my views on living in a big city.
  • Praise: You raised an important point.
  • Redirect: Actually, let me tell you why I hate living in a big city.
  • Bridge: We’re not here to talk about cities, we’re here to talk about the urban/suburban divide in our country.

Here are two more points to keep in mind during impromptu speaking:

Develop an internal timer. When you speak off the cuff, pay attention to the passage of time. When we are unprepared, we tend to ramble as we constantly think of better ways to say the same thing. Develop an internal timer so that you become aware of when you’ve been talking for too long. If you feel you’ve been rambling, use “And that is why I believe” to restate your main point and quickly conclude.

Focus on one key message. When you speak off the cuff, you don’t have time to remember multiple points. Choose one key message and then unpack it with an example. You can add a counterpoint as well to demonstrate multiple sides of an issue, but stick to one main message.

Speaking off the cuff happens every single day. Practice your impromptu speaking skills and you will make a powerful impact on others.


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