How to Speak ‘Off The Cuff’

How do you react when you’re asked to ‘say a few words’? Do you have the gift of the gab, the ability to speak articulately and comprehensively about any topic with little or no preparation? Or are you one of the many who become completely tongue tied; barely managing to ‘um’ and ‘err’ through a mumbled ramble of incoherent nonsense before shuffling away hoping the ground would open up and put you (and your audience) out of misery? Being put on the spot to speak in public is something many people fear. Coming from a background as a performer, I’m sometimes more comfortable when I have a script that I’ve had time to learn and rehearse. However, whether you’re world famous or famous amongst your friends, family and colleagues, there are bound to be times when you will be called upon to speak about something with little or no preparation.

Perhaps the CEO stops you in the corridor and asks how your latest project is coming along. You could be at a friend’s birthday party when you are asked to say a few words about the guest of honour. Or you might be in a team meeting and asked what you think of the latest proposal. To be able to effectively articulate a clear and concise response will ensure that you come across as confident and credible. But how do you acquire the skill to do that?

That’s why this month I spoke with Renée Philippi for her tips on ‘speaking off the cuff’. After undertaking The Dale Carnegie Course, Renée honed her speaking skills at Toastmasters International. She has represented Scotland in the Toastmasters Table Topics Competition (speaking on a topic with no preparation) at the District Final for the UK and Ireland.

Thanks for speaking with me, Renée. What prompted you to improve your communication skills?

I was promoted to a supervisory position but had never had any training on how to manage people and when my team started complaining about me to my boss, he sent me away to The Dale Carnegie Course (Dale Carnegie is the author of How To Win Friends And Influence People) as what seemed to be a form of punishment. It ended up being one of the greatest gifts I could have received.

Why was that?

Working through the material in the course changed my life because I realised how critical interpersonal communications skills are on all levels of life. The better I’m able to convey my thoughts, requests, and queries to others, the more effective I am in my life and the more enjoyable interactions with other people become.

How long have you been a member of Toastmasters International and why did you join?

I’ve been a member for five years. I’m one of the minority who actually enjoys engaging an audience through public speaking and I wanted to learn how to continue to do that better. The synergy that’s created when I’m in flow and I know that I have fully engaged my audience is just amazing. I also feel that I have life lessons that I can share with others to help them and the more effective I am in communicating those the more I truly can be of benefit to others.

Tell me about the Table Topics element of Toastmasters...

The Table Topics segment of a club meeting is managed by a Table Topics Master who creates a series of topics on which members are asked to speak with no preparation time or forewarning. The topic is read out, the member’s name is announced, and they are required to stand up and speak for 1-2 minutes about the topic.

How did you end up becoming the Scottish Table Topics champion?

Because I’m brilliant at it! (laughing)

Excellent! Would you please share some of your brilliance to help others who are keen to improve their own impromptu speaking?

Of course. Here are my top tips:

Top Tip 1 - for speaking off the cuff in a one to one situation

The first thing to do is to think about why you are being asked about the topic. What interest does your questioner have in this? That will help you hone in on what your focal points should be.

Top Tip 2 - for speaking off the cuff when speaking to groups

To the degree possible, begin with the end in mind but don’t give it all away in the first instance; know where you want to get to but start from where you are and take your audience with you.

Top Tip 3 – don’t ever waste time

Do not focus on or even necessarily mention what you don’t know about the topic, especially if you have a limited amount of time in which to speak. You can only really give value to your audience by sharing with them what you do know.

Renée has provided some great tips above, and here are a few pointers I have picked up along my public speaking journey:

- Always take a moment before answering to gather and order your thoughts; despite the fact that while sometimes your initial reaction to a question is the right one, a short pause before answering is usually preferable to blurting out the first thing that comes to mind

- Share a short story where possible as it engages the audience

- Practice! The more often you take the opportunity to speak off the cuff, the better you will be at it when it really counts. Organisations like Toastmasters International and other public speaking groups provide a safe environment to develop your impromptu speaking skills.

If you enjoyed this article, click here to access Mel Sherwood’s ‘Top 5 Tips for Public Speaking Success’

Mel Sherwood is a pitch and presentation specialist who prepares ambitious entrepreneurs and business professionals to take centre stage, embrace the spotlight and present with more confidence, credibility and conviction.

Mel's book 'The Authority Guide to Pitching Your Business - how to make an impact and be remembered... in under a minute!' is available on
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