Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"

Are you good at doing things off the cuff? Do you like to stand up and speak in English spontaneously?

Have you heard people use “off the cuff” in English conversation?

This is a phrase that speaks to acting quickly, and often without any thought or time to prepare.

We’re going to look at how to use this phrase in conversation, what it means, and how this approach can sometimes be a really good thing.

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Our listener has a question about this really fun phrase that you will likely hear often.

Hi Lindsay,

I’m Emerson from Brazil, and I’ve been listening to your podcasts for six months or so. I was listening to an old podcast of yours about the phrasal verb and how that all works. I do have a question for you today.

I’d love it if you could explain to me and all your listeners the meaning of the expression “off the cuff.” When people use this expression, I feel confused. I’m wondering if it’s similar to the verb “improvise?”

Can you help me to understand this phrase and how to use it?  

Best wishes!!

Using This Phrase

This is a phrase that you may hear fairly often.

It tends to be used about speaking, or just about being prepared in general.

This is a phrase and a feeling that is all about being spontaneous in nature.

It can be used for things other than speaking, but that’s a common place you would find it.

So that’s what we’re looking at today, using this phrase and other similar ones when it comes to giving a speech.

You will often watch somebody giving a speech and it will be “off the cuff,” and they may even call it that.

This comes across as more genuine and from the heart.

You could say “Her speech was off the cuff, so she made some really funny and heartfelt jokes. The audience loved it.”

So off the cuff is basically more unplanned, and it tends to be a bit more informal.

This is why it comes across as more genuine in nature.

This is almost like speaking as you think, and just conveying your thoughts and feelings as they come to you.

When Is It Okay To Use This?

You might wonder when it’s appropriate to use this phrase in conversation.

There are definitely times when speaking off the cuff works well.

These are the times when the need arises or when you feel justified in improvising.

  • Acceptance speeches: You may see this style used in a speech on TV, such as the Oscars for example. It may seem more genuine like you weren’t expecting it, and people receive that really well when they hear it. You seem gracious, surprise, and like you are just speaking from the heart.
  • Just using short notes at meetings but not reading everything off a paper: This is a more informal approach of keeping a meeting going. You are talking TO people rather than AT people, and this is usually very much appreciated. This tends to put people at ease and makes the working relationship flow better too.
  • Job interviews: Though you do want to be prepared, you don’t want to have every word planned out! If you answer questions and put thought into what you say, it comes across as sincere and more natural.
  • Presentations: Again you don’t want or need to read every word from a piece of paper. Sometimes just speaking on a subject that you know about can come off much better if you speak off the cuff, and it can keep the audience interested.

Though speaking off the cuff may not always work, these are instances where it can be a good match.

Know what you want to talk about before you go into a setting, but keep it simple and sincere.

This is a great way to keep the audience interested, to show your knowledge in a given area, and to come across naturally.

Finding Balance Works Best

The best thing is to find a “happy medium” with public speaking.

That is to say you want to find balance between being prepared and being overly rehearsed.

You don’t want to sound like you aren’t prepared or haven’t thought about it at all.

However you may also find it very useful to just write notes on note cards to keep your ideas organized.

When it comes to a job interview, don’t go in with a statement memorized.

These things can make you sound robotic, and that will often turn people away.

Also, if you are too prepared and you forget something, it will be even more stressful. 

So have ideas and simple notes to keep you on track, but don’t try too hard.

Don’t go into any speaking situation unprepared, but also don’t go in too rehearsed either–that’s where finding your balance can be a really great thing.

Similar Words You Can Use

Though using “off the cuff” or “improvise” can be great in conversation, there are other options you can use as well.

It can be nice to mix it up a bit, and these words are a great way to do just that.

  • Unscripted: There is no script and there are no guidelines. This is being said without any assistance, and so you are going along as you think of things. It’s not always easy to do, but it works really well. You could say “What I’m about to say is completely unscripted.”
  • Impromptu: You will hear this words in a lot of different circumstances. It means that you are doing this quickly and without much thought. You may not even have time to think about it or to react, you just do it! You might hear somebody say- “I’m going to make an impromptu speech.”

The thing to remember with any of these words is how to use them in conversation.

This is all about thinking quickly and coming up with the right things to say as you move through the conversation.

These words and phrases can all help you to improvise, and then talk and act in the moment.

This is all about being present and making adjustments as you move forward.


With public speaking, you have to think of your audience, your purpose, and things like that to know what works best.

Is it a good idea to speak off the cuff?

Is half way the best?

Is it better to keep it completely unscripted or not?

This all depends on the different situations, and even the people you are talking to.

Notice what you like when you hear others speak, and then cater your style and speaking accordingly.

If you have any questions, please leave them below in the comments section.

We’ll get back to you as soon as we can.

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