How to speak off the cuff

Sometimes giving a speech is the easy part.

You write the speech at your own pace, you give the speech in front of an audience, and you’re done. As former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “Be sincere; be brief; be seated.”

But what happens when you have to speak at a moment’s notice, or when you need to answer questions in front of an audience?

Impromptu speaking, otherwise known as extemporaneous speaking or speaking “off the cuff,” happens all the time: someone asks you to present during a meeting, a prospect asks you a series of difficult questions, or a conference audience starts to push back during your prepared presentation.

Luckily, there’s an easy formula you can use when speaking off the cuff. I learned this from Toastmasters International and have used it with bankers in New York, lawyers in DC, graduate students in Boston, and nonprofit leaders around the world.

It’s called the “PREP” Formula and it has four parts:

  1. Point
  2. Reason
  3. Example
  4. Point

Here’s an explanation:

  1. Start by answering the question, “I believe that…”
  2. Then give an explanation: “And the reason I believe that is…”
  3. Provide an example that supports your position: “For example, just last week…”
  4. Conclude by summarizing your point, “And that is why I believe that…”

Notice you only get one main point, not three or five. That’s because, in the moment, you don’t have time to think up three different points, and the more you talk, the more you go off topic. Choosing one main point keeps your message focused and relevant.

I like to use a transitional phrase before diving into the PREP Formula, something like: I’m glad you brought that up or that’s a great question. It gives you time to think of your one point. These phrases are sometimes referred to as “bridging” if you are trying to redirect the question to talk about a different topic.

Let’s try using the PREP Formula with an easy question:

  • The Question: How do you feel about living in a big city?

The PREP Answer

  • Transitional Phrase: Thank you, that’s a great question.
  • Point: I love living in a big city.
  • Reason: And the reason is because you can walk everywhere instead of having to get into your car and drive every day.
  • Example: For example, I was able to sell my car and spend more time outdoors because my office is a 30-minute walk from my apartment.
  • Point: And that is why I love living in a big city.

Now have a colleague ask you a work-related question and try to answer using the PREP Formula. Once you pick it up, you’ll find it an easy, efficient, and effective way of answering a question.

So the next time you have to speak “off the cuff,” take a deep breath, smile, think of one main point you’d like to say, and use the PREP Formula. The more prepared you feel for impromptu speaking, the more confident and natural you’ll feel in your overall speaking skills.

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