7 ways to be a better speaker - off the cuff
Ryan Foland

You prepared for weeks.

Your mentor reviewed your PowerPoint presentation.

It's time to get in front of the investment group that you’ve been after for a long time.

This is your moment.

Listening to your favorite Eminem song, you’re convinced that this really is your moment.

And then... everything goes wrong. It starts to rain. Starbucks is busier than normal, and their espresso machine broke, meaning you didn't get your good luck Americano with two pumps of sugar-free vanilla, half inch soy, and one Splenda.

You get to the investor’s office.

The PowerPoint won't load, but you fix it.

Then your computer goes into its automatic software update right after you start.


We often prepare ourselves for presentations. But not all of us are prepared for the unprepared.

Here are seven tips to handling yourself in situations where something goes wrong, and your only option is to speak off the cuff — otherwise known as extemporaneous speaking.

Tip 1. Be prepared. It seems obvious, but you may not be as prepared as you should be. If you have a presentation accompanied by PowerPoint, know the PowerPoint so well that you don't need it. Remember, a PowerPoint should be a guide for the audience, not for you. The more prepared you are, the more prepared you will be for the unexpected. Guy Kawasaki says that your PowerPoint should help you lead your presentation, not read it. I like to take it one step further: know your presentation slides without even having to look at them.

Tip 2. Speak slowly. If you're in a situation where you are speaking off the cuff, make sure you're speaking slowly enough to give yourself time to figure out what you're going to say next. You will be anxious, and that can turn into a rapid pace of speaking which will work against you. You’ll be likely to run into potholes, which will become very obvious to your audience.

Tip 3. Have a backup. Many times, it is helpful to hand-write a very brief outline of your speech or presentation, such that it can fit on a post-it note. Being extemporaneous is different than not having any structure. You should still get the main points across, regardless of how you end up explaining your ideas. Sometimes having a small note card in your pocket with an outline helps build confidence, and you usually won’t even need it (but psychologically, it is nice to know that it’s there if you do get stuck).

Tip 4. Practice being uncomfortable. The best way to practice for an unprepared situation is to put yourself in that type of situation, and practice your response. Next time you have an opportunity to speak in front of a crowd, especially when you haven't prepared any material, take the opportunity and fail as many times as you can. Each time, evaluate what you could have done better. In each instance, you will improve and gain more confidence for future situations.

Tip 5. Use stories. When in doubt, use stories as a backup to guide your presentation. If pitching, revert back to the story of why you started the company in the first place. Tell a story about the challenges you had during the development of your product or service. Tell stories from a customer’s standpoint about how your product or service has helped them. We tell stories all day, every day, to our friends, loved ones, and anyone who will hear them. Stories are a powerful tool to give you structure in an unstructured environment.

Tip 6. Don't take yourself seriously. Humor is the great equalizer. If you take yourself too seriously, the audience will know that and they may feel uncomfortable. Remember, audiences are humans too. They are very perceptive to your state of nervousness or seriousness. Make light-handed jokes, smile often, and laugh at yourself, even if no one else does. It will keep the room light and your presentation enjoyable.

Tip 7. Join a Toastmasters. Part of the value in joining a Toastmasters organization is the opportunity to fail every week. One cornerstone of meetings is an exercise called Table Topics, where people are randomly selected to give extemporaneous talks on random questions. Limited to one to two minutes, it challenges participants, whether they're willing or not, to create a concise, direct, and hopefully entertaining mini speech in response to a question they were not prepared for. If you're often answering questions in life, or from investors, the same principle holds true. You’ll need to be aware of how to formulate concise, relevant answers to their questions.

These tips are a good foundation to grow your extemporaneous speaking skills. The real growth comes from failure. So prepare to be unprepared, and start practicing!

What are some tips that you use to help with off the cuff speaking? Please share as comments.