Confidence in Public Speaking: Three Tips for Speaking Off the Cuff

Not feeling confident when speaking in front of groups is common for many professionals. Even if we’re experts in our field, we fear that people may be judging us or that we’re not saying the right thing. What’s true is that even if we’re feeling these things on the inside, our audience doesn’t necessarily see it on the outside, and there are things we can say to make ourselves sound more confident when speaking off the cuff.

Recently I interviewed Anne Ricketts, founder at Lighthouse Communications. Anne has been teaching people how to communicate better for more than two decades, and we’ve both held positions teaching and coaching communication skills at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. In this second article from our hour-long interview, we uncover three tips for speaking off the cuff.

Just say it

If you’re getting hung up on saying the “perfect” thing when you’re asked a question off the cuff, you’ll prevent yourself from joining the conversation and iterating on thoughts and ideas. There is no “perfect” after all, and the more we put pressure on ourselves to say the perfect thing, the bigger the chance we’re going to freeze before anything comes out of our mouth. 

Getting started by saying something is important, notes Ricketts. She says, “What someone wants to say might not be fully thought out and might not be the perfect thing, but they can lead with a phrase that indicates where they are in their thought process.” It’s handy having some of these phrases in your back pocket to help you get started. Here’s a list of phrases you can use when speaking off the cuff. 

  • “The first thing that comes to mind is…”
  • “Here are my first thoughts on this…”
  • “My immediate response is…”

What’s great about these sentence starters is that they buy us time when we’re trying to formulate what to say. They also indicate that it’s our first stab at the answer, which is a truthful and authentic response. 


Use structure

Structured speech is another powerful way to sound more confident, even when speaking off the cuff. Structured speech is the concept of organizing what you’re saying into clearly defined buckets so that it’s more easily digested by your audience. What are some examples of structured speech?

In our work training teams and individuals, both Ricketts and I teach a variety of structures to help speakers communicate more clearly. For example, PREP is one of the first structures we teach. PREP stands for Point, Reason, Example, Point Summarized. Here’s an example of what that looks like in practice.

Point – “I’d like to talk about our sales strategy…”

Reason – “…because we’ve got some big numbers to hit this quarter.”
Example – “For example, we’ve agreed that we want to increase our revenue by 10%.”
Point Summarized – “That’s why getting our strategy nailed down is key.”

“I’m always impressed when people use structure.” —Anne Ricketts

In addition to specific structures like PREP, of which there are many, there are phrases you can use to help you organize your speech so you sound more confident. Using numbers can be helpful. Here are some examples.

  • “There are three things coming to mind for me right now…”
  • “There are two ways we can think about this…”
  • “There are distinct benefits and drawbacks to this solution. The benefits are…”

What’s great about leading with one of these phrases is that your mind will tend to fill in the buckets even if you’ve never thought about the question before. In addition, these phrases sometimes give you just the time you need to get clear.

What to say when you don’t know the answer

One of the biggest questions I get from professionals I coach is, “What do I say if I don’t know the answer?” I believe it says a lot about our work culture that we think we have to put on a show or try to be someone we’re not when we find ourselves at a loss for an answer. 

“It really ties back to authenticity,” says Ricketts. “Do you have the confidence to say, ‘I’m needing some help with this,’ or ‘Actually, I don’t know, but here’s what I do know.” It’s not about “performing” or being perfect. It’s about helping the conversation move forward. It’s about being honest while maintaining credibility and openness to finding solutions.

“If I have phrases for different situations, it helps me move forward and then I can think once I get going.” —Anne Ricketts

Here are some phrases you can use when you don’t know the answer.

  • “I’m not certain, but I can look into this and get back to you.” 
  • “I don’t know the answer to that, but here’s what I do know.”
  • “I don’t have enough insight on this topic. Jane, can you speak to this?”

It’s impossible to rehearse every answer to every question, but the act of just saying something, speaking with structure, and having authenticity when you’re not sure of the answer will help you speak with more confidence every time.

Watch the full interview with Anne Ricketts here.

How do you approach speaking off the cuff?

To overcome the inevitable challenges when speaking in front of groups, a coach can be an invaluable tool. If you’re curious, get on my calendar with a free Leadership Confidence call today.


To your Confidence,



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