A Table Topics Workout

The power-packed exercise for stretching your brain.

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This article is from the February 2016 edition of the Toastmaster magazine.

Roscoe Drummond, an American journalist, once said, “The mind is a wonderful thing. It starts working the minute you are born, and never stops until you get up to speak in public.”

Hmm, was he talking about Table Topics?

Table Topics has been a key component of the Toastmasters program for many, many years. The 1936 club officer training manual prescribes a typical meeting agenda and defines a “table topic.” The manual reads, “This topic becomes the theme for informal discussion in which each member is expected to participate, with the exception of those assigned as speakers on the regular program. The purpose is to get every member on his feet at every meeting.

Decades later, Table Topics is still a signature club activity. While the purpose of encouraging participation remains the same, the benefits embrace much more. That simple one- to two-minute impromptu speech can transform your communication and leadership skills. Love it or loathe it, Table Topics is a powerful tool for growth.

Every day, we engage in impromptu speaking. In conversation, you speak off-the-cuff. When asked for your opinion, or a summary of a task at work, you speak extemporaneously. Table Topics hones the skill of creating an impromptu response that is laser-focused, compelling and engaging.

If you struggle with small talk, or desire to give a good interview, Table Topics will help. You’ll be a better conversationalist and your professional presence will improve. In a corporate environment, you may need to develop “sound bite”-type answers for the CEO, or develop your promotional elevator pitch. If you are a person learning English as a second language, Table Topics is ideal for exercising your conversational skills. Participating in Table Topics helps you develop critical and organized thinking skills because you have to think quickly, and if you participate frequently you will lose those verbal crutches, the dreaded “ahs” and “ums,” much faster.

Dwayne Windham, DTM, from Laughing Matters club in Austin, Texas, is passionate about how Table Topics has benefitted him. “I work in technical support, a constant, unending world of ‘table topics.’ Pick up the phone, and you’re on stage trying to answer ‘Why is it doing this?’ ‘How do I make it do this?’ Every time you use audible fillers—‘ah,’ ‘um,’ ‘you know’—your credibility drops and it’s more likely that someone will demand to speak to a manager. The more you can provide prompt, succinct, accurate responses, the better your numbers, and the better service you deliver.”

Table Topics can help a timid speaker emerge into a more confident one without being overwhelmed by developing a five- to seven-minute speech. Joyce Teal, ACB, CL, from Monday Mumblers Toastmasters in Chattanooga, Tennessee, loves to see those who are nervous about speaking take a turn. She says they are always surprised by how much they enjoy it and how confident they feel afterwards. Similarly, guests often embrace Table Topics. Katherine Hanneman, DTM, from the Hickam AFB club in Honolulu, Hawaii, says, “Guests who are encouraged to participate in Table Topics have a feeling of fitting in and belonging, and they are more likely to join. Table Topics is a magic wand that makes fear disappear and creates an eagerness to do more.”

Why Is It So Difficult?
Many Toastmasters love Table Topics because impromptu speaking comes easily to them. They may even prefer it to drafting, practicing, memorizing and delivering manual speeches. Binoj K. Ravi, CC, of Assisi Toastmasters in Kerala, India, is an engineer with previous experience in training and education, and he is very comfortable with impromptu speaking. However, after several years of not teaching, he felt his skills deteriorating, so he joined a club to regain his sharpness. Creating a prepared speech was a challenge for him. “I am a spontaneous speaker,” he says. “I can’t memorize well. But I gain the most from Table Topics.” He even proposes delivering an impromptu five- to seven-minute speech to further improve his own skills.

If you, unlike Ravi, struggle with impromptu speaking, you are not alone. Science explains why. Researchers from Rice University, Johns Hopkins University and Columbia University recently published their conclusions that our abilities to speak and write are controlled from two separate but closely located areas of the brain. This is why people write differently from how they speak, and vice versa. When writing a speech, we edit ideas more slowly, using formal, less conversational phrases. When we speak off-the-cuff, we don’t edit as much. In other words, we think before we write but we speak before we think, and the thinking comes from two different brain areas. Table Topics helps exercise and discipline the brain to even out this disparity.

Common Concerns
What are your Table Topics concerns? Maybe you’re afraid of looking foolish, or you’re unfamiliar with the topic. Maybe you fear sharing an opinion on a controversial topic, or getting too emotional. Maybe you wish you had a different topic. Maybe you feel pressured to be funny, profound, accurate, concise or entertaining. You might even think the topic is too frivolous. Division Director Dale Goff, DTM, of Dobson-Craddock Toastmasters in South Charleston, West Virginia, says, “I feel Table Topics, like much of Toastmasters, is designed for professional development. Is it just a game? Let’s get back to basics and hone our professional skills.” Many members agree, but other members enjoy the chance to be more creative, and even theatrical. Both approaches work, because the skills developed in Table Topics are transferable beyond the club setting.

4 Steps to Terrific Table Topic Answers
So, what can you do to improve? Try this simple four-step approach to developing a great response.

  • Think Calmly: Before the meeting starts, bring to the forefront of your mind some recent conversations or events so you may have access to possible responses. When you hear the topic, stay silent. Breathe, refer to your inventory of recent thoughts, and choose one point or story that fits. (Note: This does not mean scripting an answer ahead of time and forcing it to fit the topic. That defeats the purpose.)
  • Organize Clearly: Develop an opening, body and closing. Many people open by repeating the question, but that is a weak opening. Open as you would a speech, perhaps with a quote, statistic or question, such as, “Don’t you agree that …?” Then make your point (or tell a quick story), and use a close that ties to the opening.
  • Deliver Masterfully: Don’t forget eye contact, body language, vocal variety, grammar and pronunciation. Watch the ahs, ums and ya-knows.
  • Time Perfectly: Most of us are unaware of how much (or little) we say in one or two minutes. Table Topics forces loquacious people to condense their words, and timid people to expand them. Watch the timing signals.

Would you like more preparation time? Darren LaCroix, the 2001 Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking, suggests improv classes. “In Table Topics, you’re given a topic, and right in the moment, you talk about it. How can you prepare? Improv games! They help you to be more ‘present.’ When you are present, you can handle impromptu speaking better.” Bruce Yang, DTM, of Taichung Toastmasters, Taichung City, Taiwan, agrees. He sees the parallel between improvisation and Table Topics. He marvels at an improv performer’s ability to immediately connect the dots in order to evoke a picture in the listeners’ minds.

Unique and Creative Approaches
The freedom to be creative and unpredictable is a hallmark of Table Topics. Greg Gazin, DTM, from New Entrepreneurs club in Alberta, Canada, says, “Once, we selected unfamiliar words from the dictionary and asked participants for definitions. We had creative and funny answers, then we revealed the true definitions.” For example: The word homerkin reminded members of The Simpsons TV show, but actually, it’s a very old word for a measurement of beer.

One club created an out-of-the-box Table Topics experience, literally. Aero Speakers Toastmasters in Laverton, Melbourne, Australia, conducted an outdoor session at a local open-air market on a busy Saturday, patterning it after the famous Hyde Park (London) soapbox style where someone stands on a box to deliver a speech, eliciting responses from passers-by.

Helen McKenzie-Fairlie, ACB, CL, of Satdy Arvo Communicators club in Port Melbourne, worked to help charter Aero Speakers and was involved in the project. She proudly reflects on this unusual experience: “Our purpose was to recruit new members. Within two months, the club chartered, but it was not because the market event created new members. Rather, it was because we gained confidence. Toastmasters lives up to its promise of developing skills.” Personal testimonies like that are persuasive to prospective members.

And then there’s the out-of-the-bag approach. Lau Kiang Siang, CL, from Historical City Toastmasters in Malacca, Malaysia, visited the Thai Airways International club in Bangkok, Thailand, where “the Table Topicsmaster called the members and guests to draw items out of the bag to use as their topic.”

Or how about a “tag-team” approach of storytelling? The Topicsmaster starts a story with a simple “Once upon a time …” or “T’was a dark and stormy night …” and calls on a person to craft the next part. After a minute, that person calls on another to continue the story, and so on. Still another innovative method is described by Douglas Wilks, ACB, CL, of District 78 Skills Club in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “I chose some world records from the Guinness book and had each speaker describe the record they broke and why they chose to break it. Everyone at the meeting commented how fun it was.”

The variations are endless, the fun is limitless, and the benefits are boundless. This time-tested custom of impromptu speaking is a robust way to improve your skills. The next time you are called on for Table Topics, rethink Roscoe Drummond’s quote to be this instead: “The mind is a wonderful thing. It starts working the minute you are born, and never stops …” especially when you get up for Table Topics.


Author Bio

MAUREEN ZAPPALA, DTM, is a former NASA propulsion engineer. Today she’s a professional speaker, author and presenta-tion skills coach, as well as founder of High Altitude Strategies, a coaching and speaking service. She belongs to the Aerospace Toastmasters Club in Cleveland, Ohio. Visit her website.

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"Love it or loath it, Table Topics is a powerful tool for growth."

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