Everyone was quiet. I was waiting on stage. The question came:
“Tell me about a time you did something your girlfriend didn’t want you to do”
I had to speak for one minute with no time to prepare… Welcome to Toastmasters Table Topics.
Back Up… What is Toastmasters?
Toastmasters is an organisation that helps people improve their speaking and leadership skills. They have clubs all over the world that meet on a regular basis – twice per month for my club.
The meetings are structured with a number of activities, and members can take on various roles including Chairman, Grammarian, Evaluator, Toastmaster, Laughmaster and more. Plenty of roles to gain experience in.
Here’s part of our agenda:
Highlighted in orange is the dreaded Table Topics.
Toastmasters Table Topics – Practice Impromptu Speaking
The Table Topics Master runs the Table Topics session. Firstly they explain the purpose: To practice impromptu speaking.
Then they call out a member and ask a question. Usually based on a theme. Some questions are bizarre. Really bizarre. But more on that shortly.
The speaker doesn’t have any time to prepare. Just try and answer the question.
It’s really fun to watch. Especially if you like to see people sweat. But then your name may be called out next.
The response length varies depending on which club you’re at but one to two minutes is common. The goal at my club is to speak for 40-60 seconds. Any shorter or longer and you’ll be penalised.
Here’s how to do it properly, and win a district competition! (I’ll explain competition rules shortly):
What’s The Point?
I hate meetings where I’m put on the spot with a question and I just don’t have a good response. So I waffle something out (or worse – say nothing at all). Then minutes later a great response pops into my head and I think – “I wish I said that!”.
Solution: Get good at Table Topics!
I hate being at a dinner and the conversation switches to something I don’t know a lot about so I sit there quietly not saying a thing.
Solution: Get good at Table Topics!
I hate going to watch a stand up comedy show. Then just before it begins the comedian cancels. So the MC asks if anyone in the audience can fill in. But I don’t put my hand up.
Solution: Well… probably not Table Topics.
But you get the point. Being good at impromptu speaking will help in all areas of communication. Whether you’re at a dinner party, job interview, meeting, date, party, work function, negotiation….
And because you can think on your feet, you’ll have a response for any question.
Questions to Make You Squirm
Table Topics questions can be anything. And I mean anything. A few of the questions I’ve been asked are:
Why is banana cake your favorite?
Why are you the best candidate for a job as a toothpick engineer?
What would your day be like if you were a matchstick?
And sometimes I really struggle. It’s hard being up on stage trying to answer a question I’ve never been asked before.
What Does a Terrible Response Look Like?
Well I’m a professional. Currently I’m at the lower end of my club. Not for long though. I’m soon to be a “Table Topics Superhero”.
But at the moment I suck. So far I have lots of experience in giving terrible responses. The type where I think to myself “what was that????” as I walk back to my seat.
- Saying lots of ums and ahs
- Trying to string together sentences but not making a lot of sense
- Looking at the ground
- Changing topic half way through the speech
- You get the point!
Someone who then says “thank you” and walks back to their seat.
The good thing about Toastmasters is I still get a clap for doing that.
It’s funny. During the speech I’m really in the moment. I focus so hard on what I’m saying that I forget I should be looking at the audience. Or using the stage. Or gesturing appropriately.
I’m reminded later , when my response is evaluated.
You Get Evaluated? That Sounds Brutal
It’s not. Not at all. Toastmasters is very supportive. An evaluator would never point out a whole list of items that were wrong with a speech. In fact evaluators try to point out more positive things rather than negative. It’s always a big positive that you get up there and give it a go. Better than most people out there who wouldn’t even try.
The evaluations are mini speeches in themselves. I’ll explain them in more detail in another post.
A Competition at Each Meeting
At the end of each meeting the members vote (secret ballot) on which was the best Table Topic response. Then the winner is announced to much fame and fortune. Not really. But we do give the winner a treat and I’m sure other clubs do something similar.
If you find you enjoy or have a knack for it, or even if you don’t, you might enter a formal competition:
Formal Competitions – Things Just Got Serious
Once a year there’s a formal Table Topics competition. There are a number of levels beginning at the Club level. This is held at your regular club with all the usual
The club winner goes on to compete in the Area. The Area winner goes on to Division. After that, the best of the best compete in the District competition. The competitions have more formal rules than regular meetings. In particular: Timing.
The timing for formal competitions is very strict. It’s outlined in the Speech Contest Rulebook:
“Table Topics contest speeches shall be from one minute to two minutes.
A contestant will be disqualified if the speech is less than one minute or more than two minutes 30 seconds.”
I’ve actually seen someone who was disqualified for speaking for too long. Not me of course. I’d have the opposite problem. Luckily they don’t disqualify at our regular club meetings.
There is also a formal Judge’s Guide And Ballot.
Judging is based on three areas:
- Content (55%) – Speech development and effectiveness
- Delivery (30%) – Physical and Voice
- Language (15%) – Appropriateness and Correctness
If you want to win you have to know your stuff. I’ll dive deeper into the judging criteria another time.
My Current Level
I’ve been a Toastmasters member for 12 months now.
I’ve seen my prepared speeches improve quite a lot. I put in lots of effort and can see the results. I’ve done four so far.
Table Topics is another story altogether. I haven’t really seen much improvement at all. Although my nervousness has gone down a little. Which is a plus for sure.
I haven’t won any of the regular club meeting Table Topics. Not even close.
So hopefully with a bit of research and applied practice things will improve.
How to Stop Sucking So Much?
Practice is always good. But I’m not going to sign up to fourteen different Toastmasters clubs. Just so I can practice every day. Although, that would be an interesting experiment.
I’ve seen a couple of youtube videos that detail ways you can practice. I also have some ideas of my own. I’m still coming up with ideas so I’ll spell out all the details in a future post.
But basically I’m after practical exercises I can do on a daily basis.
On the other hand, I’m also going to absorb as much information as possible. And review it here for all of you. So stay tuned.
To finish off take a look at another Table Topic response. This one came second at the District level.
Yay! You made it to the end. Drop any comments below.
Do you have any issues with impromptu speaking? Or maybe some ideas for how I can practice?