The Ultimate Guide to Off the Cuff Speaking

The microphone is shoved in your face, and then the questions come.

‘How was the tour?’

‘Did the project proceed as you expected?’

‘When do you expect to know the final results?’

One of the biggest problems that people face is impromptu questions—which is surprising. We practice off the cuff conversations all the time, but we often have problems with unexpected questions when under pressure.

Sometimes we are at the centre of television or radio interviews. If that’s the case:

  • Be a little more animated than usual.

  • Smile if appropriate. Our bodies are conditioned to believe that we smile when we’re relaxed. Smiling will send a message to your brain that you’re feeling composed, and will allow your thoughts to flow.

  • Don’t look directly at the camera. Look at the interviewer.

  • Practice with a friend—and film it. Watch your practice interview with the sound turned down. Then watch it speeded up. If you have any odd or repetitive gestures, these will be noticeable with the sound off or at the faster speed.

  • Dress well for the occasion. Even for radio, being well dressed always makes us feel better, and you’ll give more confident answers.

  • Pause momentarily. Take a second or two to think about your answer, and you might produce a second—and possibly better—response.

  • Practice a few ‘sound bites’ beforehand. Unfortunately, many long interviews are reduced to a few seconds that gets crammed into the evening news. Practice a few phrases that you really want to get across to the listeners. If it’s a good enough phrase, the newsreader will probably fashion the entire story around it. Practice saying these phrases succinctly and without hesitation.

Now let’s look at questions. There’s two off the cuff scenarios that we’re faced with when asked questions.

Unexpected interviews

This is where we are called unexpectedly into a meeting or asked our opinion. We may know our subject matter, but not as well as could be hoped. Additionally, you may have been unexpectedly called into a meeting at the last moment.

1. Past, present and future

This technique buys you time. You describe the issue as it was in the past, then its current state, and finally your expectations for the future. For example:

The question

Why are the profits down this year?

The answer

Last year was a particularly good year. The new market we opened in Thailand boosted our profits.

This year we’ve seen a global cooling of the market.

Next year we’re expecting the global economy to improve.

2. For, against and stand

This is when we get asked a question, and weigh up both the positive and negative arguments before finally taking a stand. For example:

The question

Bill says we need six new people in sales. Do you agree?

The answer

For: Employing six people will add almost a million dollars in costs. That’s a lot of expense we didn’t budget for. Also, it’ll be hard to fit them on that floor.

Against: Mind you, every new sales person doubles our gross revenue.

Stand: I think we should employ three and then another three later.

Docklands, Melbourne Victoria


The prep method stands for Point, Reason, Example and Point. Here we state our argument, give a reason for it, give an example to back up what we’re saying, and then reiterate our main point. For example:

The question

Should we spend up big on our next advertising campaign?

The answer

Point: Yes, we should.

Reason: It will increase our sales.

Example : We sold three times as many Premium packages after our last campaign.

Point: So, we definitely need to increase our advertising budget.

Now let’s take a look at how to handle the other type of interview.

Expected interviews

This is where we know ahead of time that we’re going to be answering several questions about a particular topic. Maybe we’re being interviewed on television or radio, or we’ve been asked to give a full report where several questions will be fired at us.

Who, where, when, how, why and what

This old standby list has been used by journalists for generations, and will probably still be in use long after the sun has faded from the sky. These are all questions you can prepare for and know the answers to well before the interview. For example:

The question

Tell me about the Mawson project.

The answer

What: A deep pit was being constructed to store rocky debris.

Who: Renwick Constructions were in charge.

Where: The project was taking place in the Rallee Valley.

When: It began in March and finished in June.

How: It used a combination of graders, bulldozers and trucks to haul away soil.

Why: The pit was being dug to contain rocky debris so a new park could be built in the next valley.

It’s useful to know the answers, not just to these questions, but also the alternate answers. There may have been some contention about the entire project, so think about your answers for why this particular course of action was taken, and why others were not.

In summary…

Preparation and pausing takes you a long way when being asked questions. Pausing allows you to think. Preparation means you don’t need to.

Remember, an interview isn’t an interrogation. It’s an opportunity to get your message across. Relax and you’ll make your point accurately, and succinctly.

Most importantly, you’ll communicate your message successfully.