Mastering TABLE TOPICS™

Mastering TABLE TOPICS™

How to go on when you really want a time-out.

By Bob Lea, ACS, CL


If you have ever had the experience of someone picking you up and pitching you into a lake or pool to learn how to swim, you know the feeling of desperately grasping for something to hold on to. For new members, TABLE TOPICS™ is that event where you’re thrown in the deep waters and expected to swim or sink. Fortunately, there are some techniques that you can use to make your one to two minutes of terrifying spontaneity enjoyable.

First, don’t be thrown by the complexity of the question. It really doesn’t make that much difference if the question is “Describe your favorite meal” or “How would you body surf down the dew on a blade of grass” – both can be equally challenging. The secret is that you don’t need to answer the question directly. Use the technique that politicians use: Shift or twist the question to an area that you do know something about. For example:

“As for body surfing, the last time I was near the ocean was when I served aboard the US Navy support ship, the Minneapolis. Our mission was to re-supply the troops serving on the front lines. I’ll never forget how proud I was to be supporting the war effort and keeping our country free of terrorism. That’s why I endorse the spending plan that would ensure our forces have equipment that will protect them with the best technology possible. I don’t think I could body surf down a blade of grass, but I would gladly vote for the best equipment of our men and women in uniform.”

So did that answer the question? For a politician, yes! He fielded a difficult question, got his message out, and sounded professional doing it. Make this part of your strategy for Table Topics – you don’t need to answer the question asked...directly.

You can’t ignore the question completely. So notice above that the politician repeated the question and tied it in again at the end. This is the second tip and it serves three purposes:

  • It gives you a little extra time to think about where you can go with the question.
  • It serves as the transition to what you really are going to talk about. You can think of it as the springboard to your real answer.
  • Tying your answer back to the original question makes your response seem focused.

The third tip is from King Solomon, who said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” As a Toastmaster, nothing should catch you off guard, because every meeting has a theme. Spend five or 10 minutes of preparation to reflect on the theme and to recall a story or anecdote or a funny family event that somewhat fits the theme. Remember, you don’t need an exact answer to the question, just a smooth delivery. You’ll have about 90 seconds to tell the story. Skip most of the details and focus on the actions. Add a few gestures that fit your storyline. Practice your story a few times, even if just in your head, until you feel comfortable. You are not looking for perfection, just a familiar path to create and then follow when you’re standing up front.

It’s meeting day and the theme is Nature’s Oddities. You’ve done your homework and thought about the time you witnessed wild pigs running through your family’s camping site. You’ve even rehearsed a couple of times to be able to demonstrate the panic you saw on your Mom’s face as the pigs ransacked the family’s cooler full of food. You’re trying to avoid eye contact with the Topicsmaster, but she sees you and asks the question, “Explain why male pheasants have a ring around their neck.” This type of question would normally intimidate you into embarrassed silence, but you’re ready with your answer:

Why do male pheasants have a ring around their neck? That’s a tough question. But when you consider Nature’s Oddities, it’s not the only tough question. For example, I was camping with my family at Big Bend park in Texas. We roasted marshmallows around the campfire and watched the fire burn down to embers. It was so peaceful with the glowing coals and the stars shining brightly overhead. Suddenly, we heard grunting noises near the camper. You should have seen the look on my Mom’s face! She was panicked! I scrambled for the flashlight and turned it on. Wild pigs were in the cooler helping themselves to our food. My brother threw rocks at them and they scattered off into the woods. They did a job on our food, but didn’t eat the pork sausage. Did they know it was Cousin Fred from Iowa? I don’t know why wild pigs didn’t like pork and I don’t know why male pheasants have a ring around their neck. Those are just some of Nature’s Oddities.

Notice that the answer has a beginning, middle and end. It actually goes somewhere, as opposed to offering random thoughts on pheasant plumage. It’s a competitive
Table Topics effort with just a few minutes of preparation.

Once you have assimilated these techniques, here’s how to step up your game. Use everyday situations to practice telling short stories. Use your alone time to practice giving Table Topics answers. It may be a few moments while mowing the lawn, doing the laundry or driving to work. For me, it’s doing animal chores, like when I feed the sheep in the barn. On this one morning, a sitting duck sees me, stands up, quacks loudly and slowly waddles away. Here’s my opportunity to describe the moment as if it were a Table Topics question on, “How do you handle office politics?”:

I know when I came upon the scene, some of you eyed me with suspicion. I find that amusing, as I have been supporting your cause for a long time. Some of you even rose up and sounded the alarm through e-mails, phone calls and in those “private meetings.” I’m here today to reaffirm my support for your cause. You can count on me to be here day after day after day. Don’t turn your back and walk out. Sit down. I think we can work together to resolve our minor issues and we will both benefit from our mutual understanding.

Can a sitting duck help you to speak better spontaneously? Sure – if you practice telling a story! So will the tissue that you had in your pocket when you washed clothes or the person who cut in front of you on the freeway. Make use of everyday situations to practice telling a story. If you like how the story spins out the first time, practice it a few times refining the storyline. Leave out unnecessary details and put in action verbs. The action verbs allow you to add meaningful gestures. Your goal is to have the story flow through a beginning, middle and end and to last about 90 seconds.

Now you’re on your way to mastering a contest-quality Table Topics answer. With a little practice, you can answer Table Topics questions like a pro! 


Bob Lea, ACS, CL is a member of the Hutchinson II Toastmasters club in Hutchinson, Minnesota.

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