Table Topics and the Dread Around Them
Ah the infamous Table Topics - a concept so unique that it is a registered trademark of Toastmasters International. The concept that sometimes has people leave the room screaming... or at least attend to a conveniently timed "important phone call."
I know 3 things about Table Topics:
- 1.They strike fear in the hearts of speakers, even veteran speakers.
- 2.They feel like the longest 2 minutes of your life.
- 3.They're honestly not that bad.
Being able to speak with a prepared presentation or a plan is one thing. Being able to speak off the cuff is an entirely different skill to master.
I joined Toastmasters in 2016 specifically because I wanted to master table topics. I've always felt that I struggle to speak in small groups, like when you're with friends at a restaurant. I used to feel like I'd say something stupid and put my foot in my mouth, and my hope was that learning to tackle table topics would improve my ability to think before I speak.
As mentioned in What the heck is In It For Me?, the main thing you learn in Toastmasters is thought development - learning how to think and how to arrange your thoughts for maximum impact. Table Topics exemplifies that learning - a true way to test your mettle and see just how good you are.
Plus, you have to remember that you're only speaking for 2 minutes. It's an easy way to get your speaking fix regularly and rack up practice. I strongly recommend you attempt Table Topics at every meeting of your Toastmasters club. To get even more practice in, think of what you would say for every topic presented at your club, even if you're not the one speaking about it.
Table Topics encourage you to think outside your proverbial box.
That all being said, how do you begin to ace the art of speaking on the spot? Here are a few techniques for you to try.
The first thing you need to know about this method is that I hate it.
There is a saying in some of our Indian Toastmasters circles - "If you've been asked to talk about a tree, but you only know about a cow, talk about the cow, and at the end say that the cow was tied to the tree."
In this method, you prepare one or two speeches of a generic nature, and then when you receive the topic, you tell your generic story and adapt it to the topic given.
While I do have a few key stories from my life at the tip of my tongue (as should everyone), I do NOT advocate this method because it goes against the spirit of the exercise - you learn nothing about thinking on your feet.
Skip this method, and opt for the next two.
No, I'm not talking about an alien abduction. This is a technique I learned from Pramoda Vyasarao, a charter member of my first club, Oracle's ORA*TORS club. He gives a 35 minute workshop on this, but here is a brief version.
- P - Personalize: Find a personal story that relates to the topic.
- R - Relax: Before you begin speaking, take a moment to physically relax and stop yourself from panicking.
- O - Opening: Use a hook to create an interesting opening. Ask a provocative question or act out something so you capture the attention of the audience.
- B - Body: Dive into your story and lead up to a statement or an argument you want to make. The story should illustrate your statement.
- E - Ending: If you've made an argument in your body, summarize it. If you have not, make a statement explaining what you learned from your story and what you would like to tell the audience.
One of the biggest mistakes we make with question-style table topics is we answer the question. When you answer the question, you will have maybe-30-seconds worth of material. You'll run out of things to say, and start floundering. Instead, use the topic as a prompt to tell a story.
This is my favourite method of tackling Table Topics. I adapted this from an improv technique that I learned from another Toastmaster, Saveen Hegde, in his improv comedy workshop.
Take a few seconds in silence to make a decision based on the topic - do you believe in it or not? Do you agree with it or not? is it relevant to you or not? Turn that into a statement, and then think of a related statement. Start speaking with the related statement, then work backwards through your logic, going through your first statement, and ultimately arriving at the topic as the conclusion.
This works well for less-abstract, decision-based topics. It isn't suited to a direct question e.g. "what is a song that inspired you?"
All the best with your table topics! Remember, learning to deal with the panic of not knowing what to talk about is a crucial skill to becoming a better communicator. Attempt them as often as you can.