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Let’s Talk Table Topics

What to do when the Topicsmaster calls your name.

By Bill Brown, DTM


There is a time in every Toastmasters meeting when eyes look down, avoiding eye contact with the speaker. We have a name for that: Table Topics. The thought is, if I don’t look at the Table Topicsmaster, maybe she won’t call on me. Does this sound familiar?

Yes, Table Topics, the time for impromptu speaking, is what some members relish—and others dread. But is Table Topics really that hard? It is frequently introduced, explained or perhaps justified with a comment such as, “From time to time, in real life, we are asked a question and we must respond right away, without writing out a formal answer.” And that is true. But it doesn’t make everyone look forward to the opportunity. Let me paint, perhaps, a stronger picture of its importance and relevance in our daily lives.

Years ago, I was a member of a club in Southern California. One of our members was a manager for a large corporation. One day the news department from a local Los Angeles television station visited his company to do a story on his product and he was the tour guide. Toward the end of their time together the news reporter turned to him and said, “I would like to do a short segment with someone who works for the company—and I pick you.” Suddenly the manager had a microphone and a camera in his face. And his words were to be broadcast on the evening news throughout the second-largest media market in the United States. Talk about pressure. That manager told our club, “If it wasn’t for Table Topics, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.” I don’t know about you, but that makes Table Topics seem very “real world” to me.

When the Table Topicsmaster picks you to speak, what do you do? First, recognize that a Table Topics response is just like any other speech. It should have an opening, a body and a closing. It should also have a premise—a basic idea that unifies the speech. I suggest that you first make a quick decision on your premise. How will you approach the question? What is your point? That, hopefully, will guide your words. Don’t worry. There aren’t any right or wrong answers. Fortunately, you don’t have to start talking right away. It’s OK to pause and think for 10 to 15 seconds.

We gain experience ­talking coherently and trying to eliminate the ums and ahs that so ­easily inject themselves when we think on our feet.

Knowing about or having a strong opinion on the topic makes it easy. But all too frequently that isn’t the kind of topic you get. Here you have several options. You can make something up. (If you make it funny, it could be a big hit.) You can shift the question to a more familiar, related issue. Or you could change the question entirely. (Many clubs have the rule that changing the question is fine.) In fact, that sounds a lot like the way politicians answer questions, doesn’t it? If it works for them … .

Finally, finish with a strong closing. If it is funny, all the better. Remember, Table Topics is designed to give you practice speaking. All too often I have been asked a question where I couldn’t even come up with a premise. I started talking and sometimes a direction became obvious. Other times I wasn’t so lucky. No problem. We still gain experience talking coherently and have an opportunity to eliminate the ums and ahs that so easily inject themselves when we think on our feet.

When you first start out, try to make it to the green timing light. If you can’t, that’s OK too. Many new members talk for just 10 seconds their first time. As they gain experience and confidence, they talk longer. And the first time that they hit the minimum time, the club gives them a big ovation. That is a good feeling, for both the new Toastmaster and the entire club.

You may be one who absolutely loves Table Topics. Then again, you might be like me and hope against hope that looking down will cause the Topicsmaster to pick someone else. But, alas, all too often we hear our name called. When that happens, there is only one thing to do. Stand up, decide on an approach and give the best speech that you know how to give. Oh, and watch for the green light.

Whew! I made it.