In the 1930’s, stylish men wore long-sleeved dress shirts with large fold up flaps called cuffs.  Some speakers were observed writing notes at the last minute on their cuffs, allegedly the source for the expression of speaking impromptu or “off the cuff.”

Several years ago I had the task of introducing a nationally-known speaker at a conference in the Midwest. We were paying him $3000 for his after dinner speech—a gigantic sum for that era.  I sat next to him prior to the speech, and we had a lively chat while we ate.  As the waiter cleared away the desert, the speaker pulled out a used envelope (a small used envelope) and more or less covertly jotted down 3 or 4 sentences.  He was still writing as I stood up to walk to the podium.  Convinced that my reputation would be negatively impacted if he was this unprepared and “spoke off the cuff,” I probably gave less than an enthusiastic introduction.

In this case, my presenter didn’t write anything on his cuffs but spoke “off the envelope.” I expected the worst. To my shock, he gave an engaging and excellent speech.

At the time, I thought it was purely accidental and that he was arrogant for taking our money without doing his homework. Later, of course, I realized that he had no doubt given this speech many times before—or would not have been able to command his big fee.  He was not only well-prepared, but well rehearsed. In fact, he was so well rehearsed that he was able to jot down a few words just to jog his memory—and the rest flowed smoothly.  He was  also very intentional—as if every word and gesture had been chosen to accomplish his goal.  It probably was.  The result?  His message was clear, interesting, funny and memorable.

The question is can an effective leader ever speak “off the cuff” – formally or informally – or does every word and gesture need to be as carefully chosen as the off the envelope speaker.  Your thoughts?