Steward's Corner: Surviving Public Speaking—The Off-the-Cuff Speech

A woman stands up to speak in a big meeting, holding a notebook in one hand.

When speaking off the cuff, show how you share a common goal with the swing voters, and that your approach to the goal is most likely to work. Photo: Jim West,

Whether you’re making your point in your union meeting or with a reporter on the picket line, a lot of crucial public speaking has to be improvised on the spot. No need to panic: off-the-cuff speaking is a skill that can be learned by anyone, like every other tool in your organizing kit.

Following last month’s tips on prepared speeches and presentation skills, here we’ll discuss how to give short improvised speeches and comments that come through loud and clear.


It’s easier to improvise if you “fill in the blanks” on a structure, like the one below. With experience, you can personalize it, but try starting from this template first. It’s ideal to memorize each step, so you can quickly plan your speech and find your place on the fly.

Introduce yourself briefly. In one sentence, share only the essentials: name and what establishes your relationship to the topic. “I’m Jamie Lopez, I’m a steward in maintenance, and this is the third contract campaign I’ve helped on.”

Stand Out, But Not as a Jerk

None of us wants our words to be remembered for turning the meeting into a brawl. But mushy praise for everyone’s ideas won’t move the debate forward either.

That’s why talking about a shared goal is a great place to start. The key is to contrast approaches to that goal, not attack personalities or motives. When ulterior motives and personal conflicts do exist, a big debate at a meeting is rarely the best place to deal with them.

A related way to stand out is to “map the debate.” Describe what big agreements you see in the discussion so far. Then say what key differences of approach are left on the table. When people see you’ve listened to them, they’re much more likely to listen to you—and they will appreciate you un-muddying the waters.

Draw contrasts respectfully, but firmly. When you describe approaches you disagree with, use words their advocates will find fair.

Don’t be shy to disagree. In the middle of a debate, disagreement isn’t a problem—it’s the whole point! When you draw contrasts confidently, with warm nods to the group’s shared goals, you help the whole meeting speak up and move on.

Main argument up front. In one sentence, share your main argument plainly. Keep it simple. In a speech under five minutes, you will usually be able to convince your audience of just one point. “Ending the two-tier system should be a higher priority than a bigger raise for Tier A. Ending tiers will make us stronger to win even more next time.”

What’s your shared goal with the “swing group”? Think about your audience—who’s on the fence that you can persuade to shift positions or take a new action? That’s your swing group, and they’re your target, not the people far to the other side.

In one or two sentences, show how you share a common goal with the swing group. “We should all get raises that can keep us ahead of the rent. Everyone deserves that.”

What’s your different approach to reach the goal? In one or two sentences, restate your main argument as a way to reach the shared goal. “The best way to win big is to build a bigger army. If we get rid of tiers, we’ll all be in this fight equally, and our army gets twice as big.”



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Why is your approach the best way to the goal? In a few sentences, share one or two points of evidence about why your proposed approach is the strongest. Draw contrasts with other approaches respectfully.

“Most of us here are in Tier A. We all know our Tier B coworkers work just as hard, but don’t get the job security or benefits that make them want to build our union. When we were all one tier not that long ago, we had much more attendance at union meetings, and more participation on committees by members of all different seniority.

“If we try for a raise but don’t end tiers, management will be able to keep dividing us. But if we all get on the same team, with no tiers, that’s a down payment on winning bigger raises in the future and from here on out.”

Recap the main argument. In one or two sentences, restate your argument in terms of the shared goal. When you close strong, they’ll remember! “Let’s put tiers behind us for good. We’ll make our union twice as strong to win what we all deserve.”

Want more tips? Last month the authors discussed how to prepare and deliver a short talk, such as at a union meeting or rally.

Keith Brower Brown is a steward in Auto Workers Local 2865. Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer.

Meet the Press

When speaking to a reporter or other interviewer off the cuff, use a shorter version of the template. You don’t have to answer the reporter’s question exactly. You will do best if you prepare in advance, using this structure, to tell your union’s story the way you want to tell it.

Introduce yourself in a way that those unfamiliar with your workplace or struggle can understand. “I’m Jamie Lopez, I’m a steward, I’ve been repairing the equipment here for 11 years.”

Main argument or information, adapted for the audience you think will hear or read your words. “We’re striking to end the two-tier system that makes newer people do the same work for half the pay.”

What’s your shared goal with that audience? “No one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.” “One job should be enough.” “A two-tier system is unequal pay for equal work; it’s just unfair.”

Maybe: Why is your approach the best way to the goal? “We tried for months at the bargaining table, but company executives refused to take tiers out of the contract. Our strike shows them this plant can’t run without us, and they can’t ignore us now.”

If time: Recap the main argument.

Remember what reporters are looking for: snappy quotes or video clips to put in their piece. Keep your sentences short, with clear starts and endings, and you’ll make it easier for them to include your words—instead of baloney from the boss.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #505, April 2021. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.