person speaking into a microphone giving and off the cuff interview
Focus on what your audience wants. Photo: Paul Clarke for Together London

How to speak off the cuff
when the heat is on, focus on the audience

Many people fear speaking without preparation. You don’t need to be clever or profound. Explain what you know.

Jonathan Kahn author photo
Jonathan KahnCommunication Coach Updated: 4 Jan 2024

When you need to speak off the cuff, your mind goes blank. You can’t find the words. You mumble something incoherent or say nothing at all. Does this sound familiar? It’s a common problem.

In this post you’ll learn a simple way to speak without preparation. Find out how to:

  • focus on what your audience wants, instead of letting anxiety run the show
  • offer an obvious answer to their question
  • avoid common mistakes
  • apply tips and tricks to go with the flow

Let’s learn how to speak off the cuff!

What is speaking off the cuff?

Speaking “off the cuff” means without preparation. The expression comes from surprise public speaking situations. When people only have a few minutes to prepare, so they make notes on their shirt cuff. These notes are all they have to base the speech on. Which means they’re giving the speech literally “off the cuff,” using only those notes.

Workplace examples

Here are some common scenarios where you need to speak off the cuff:

  • You’re called on during a meeting. Like, “what do you think we should do?”
  • Your boss walks past your desk and asks what you’re working on.
  • A colleague asks you to justify a decision without warning.
Colleagues listen as a person shares ideas around a table
You may need to speak off the cuff during team meetings. Photo: Mapbox / Unsplash

Many people have difficulty in these scenarios. A survey at the Stanford School of Business proves this. It found that MBA students’ top fear was speaking without preparation.

Why it’s difficult

It’s difficult to speak off the cuff because you can’t control whether you succeed. You have no time to prepare, so it seems like you have no power over what happens. This leads to panic, which makes the situation worse.

While you can’t guarantee success, there are many ways to influence the outcome. (We’ll get to them in a minute.) So why do we feel helpless when we’re put on the spot?

There are several reasons:

  • scrutiny makes us anxious
  • we tend to imagine the worst outcome
  • to avoid getting it wrong, we try to give a perfect answer
  • we focus on ourselves, not the audience

Let’s take each in turn.

A person makes a worried expression
When you can’t prepare, you can’t control whether you succeed. Photo: Afif Ramdhasuma / Unsplash

Scrutiny makes us anxious

We don’t like being under scrutiny or having our ideas judged. Which is why most people experience anxiety when they speak in front of others. The fact that you can’t plan makes this worse.

When lots of people are looking at you, you may get frightened. As if they’re predators and you’re the prey. This can trigger a “fight or flight” response which makes you panic or freeze.

We tend to imagine the worst outcome

When we’re stressed, it’s easy to lose perspective. Instead of reasoning about what people want, we tend to imagine the worst outcome. For example:

  • when someone asks for a project update you think they’re blaming you for delays
  • your boss questions a decision and you assume they disagree
  • when asked your opinion you think people expect a profound answer

If this happens, you’re likely to either freeze or give a rushed answer. This is unfortunate. Worrying about the worst blocks you from seeing what people are asking of you. Which means you’re likely to miss obvious answers to their questions.

We try to give a perfect answer

When we’re anxious, we try to control our environment. One way this shows up is trying to avoid getting it wrong. That’s why you might find yourself crafting a perfect answer. Which is both hard work and impossible! (Tip: your audience isn’t looking for perfection. They want your obvious answer.)

We focus on ourselves, not the audience

It’s normal to experience anxiety when you need to perform in front of others. You can’t make it go away. But you can choose whether to let it influence your behaviour.

When anxiety is running the show, you focus inwards. You try to make yourself look good or worry about whether people will agree with you. But these things are outside of your control! And while you focus on yourself, you aren’t paying attention to what your audience needs.

How we imagine success

Part of the problem is the way we imagine success. Picture an effective communicator. You might think of someone who’s smooth and graceful. Who seems to answer any question without effort. It’s as if they already know what people want. Are they a mind-reader?

People who excel at speaking off the cuff may seem like mind readers, but they’re not. They understand the needs of their audience. They listen, ask questions, and explain what they know in simple language. They aren’t afraid of getting it wrong, or giving obvious answers. And if what they say doesn’t work, they’re willing to try again.

Two people discuss work in an office
Effective communicators understand the needs of their audience. Photo: Mimi Thian / Unsplash

There’s no such thing as a natural communicator. Nobody was born like this! They learned techniques, practised, failed and got feedback. And tried again. You can do the same.

The fix: give the audience what they want

When you need to speak off the cuff, you have a simple job: to give the audience what they want. The reason so many people find this difficult is that they lose track of the goal.

Find things you can control

When we’re anxious we try to control things we can’t change, like:

  • what people think of us
  • getting it right
  • avoiding mistakes
  • whether people like our ideas

This is both impossible and tiring. The way out of this trap is to find things you can control.

You can’t control what people think of you. But you can give them a good time. Make their experience of talking to you enjoyable. By trying to give them what they want. When the heat is on, focus on the audience. Not on yourself!

Identify the need

Your audience doesn’t care whether you make mistakes or stumble. They care about getting answers to their questions. Which means your first job is to identify what they need.

For example, when you’re called on during a meeting. Ask yourself what updates the team want, and why. Think about:

  • their background knowledge
  • what level of detail suits them
  • the most important information right now (like an executive summary)

You need to do this in the moment, so you’ll be under pressure. But nobody expects a grand speech that you’ve worked on for weeks. A simple answer will do. Most of the time, your audience needs an answer that‘s obvious to you. The trick is to zoom in on what they’re looking for and explain it in a clear way.

A woman addresses a team meeting
When people ask you to speak off the cuff, they assume you already know the answer. Photo: Jason Goodman / Unsplash

Why are they asking you?

Here’s a shortcut to finding an obvious answer that works. Consider why they’re asking you for this information. What do you know that other people don’t? Is this your area of expertise? Do you know this project better than others?

If a manager asks for an update on your work, they don’t know the details. Nor do they want to. They’re interested in things like:

  • progress (or blockages)
  • top-level findings, learnings or issues
  • outcomes or outputs
  • next steps

If people ask you to speak without preparation, they assume you already know the answer. Once you realise this, the pressure is off. You don’t need to be clever or profound. Explain what you know. Share your obvious answer in a way that they can understand.

Top tips

Here are my top 5 tips for speaking off the cuff. Try them all!

1. Ask a question

Here’s a simple one that people often forget when they’re under pressure. If you’re not sure what your colleague wants to know, ask. And then listen to their answer. For example:

  • “Why do you want to know that?”
  • “What information would be useful right now?”
  • “What would that help you to achieve?”

Listening to their answer lets you clarify what they’re looking for. It also shows them that you’re trying to meet their needs. Which builds connection and calms you down.

2. Imagine you’re them

When you’re put on the spot, you panic. You jump to the conclusion that you don’t have what they need. This is a mistake, because they don’t have the same knowledge and experience.

The trick is to move your focus away from your inner state. Try to ignore your own state of panic. And instead consider what it’s like to be them. Imagine what’s important to them, right now. Why are they asking you? This helps you to find something that’s obvious to you but useful to them.

3. Make eye contact

This is a trick to stop the panic and start connecting. Try to relax, then look the other person in the eye, just for a moment. Think about what they’re looking for and why they’re asking. Then try your best to give them a useful answer.

4. Leave a gap

Sometimes when we’re nervous we speak too much. This tip is about leaving some space. First, listen. Then have a go at giving an obvious answer. Now wait, and see what happens. Did they understand? Will they ask a question? Or do you need to try again?

When you’re speaking impromptu, less is more.

5. Get to Q&A

When people have to speak without preparation, they often treat it like a speech. Like something you might give at a wedding or a conference. Instead of giving a speech, try to get to Q&A—question & answer. (Aside: this is also a good tip for an actual conference talk. Get to Q&A as soon as possible.)

Q&A is more fun, more useful and easier to deliver off the cuff. Instead of trying to give a perfect answer, try to generate interesting questions. Then you can go back and forth with your audience, honing in on what they need to know. And supplying obvious answers that meet their needs.

Get started

What are you waiting for? Get out there and practise speaking off the cuff.

Remember, you already have the answers they need. It’s all about identifying what they’re looking for and sharing what you know. Who knows, you might even begin to enjoy it!