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Spontaneous Speaking

Tips and tricks for becoming a better Table Topics speaker.

By Peggy Beach


Man using hand gesture speaking at lectern

For many Toastmasters, nothing strikes fear into the heart quite like the Table Topics® part of a meeting. You know it’s important to learn spontaneous speaking, but it’s intimidating, and there’s no way to prepare. Or is there?

We all know the fear you feel waiting to be called upon for Table Topics. But challenging as it may be, the best thing you can do is try to relax, says Allan Louden, professor of communications at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who understands that impromptu speaking is a challenge for many speakers.

Think of the impromptu speech as a conversation. “You don’t need to plan the entire speech,” Louden says. “In a conversation, you effortlessly have things to offer. Begin the conversation, and as you speak, more and more will come to mind.”

Relaxing—not panicking—is a key factor in being a successful Table Topics speaker. But can you do something to prepare before the meeting? The answer is yes.


Before and After the Meeting

Keeping up with current events is one way to help with Table Topics questions.

“Know what is happening in the world,” says Patricia Hurdle of Charlotte, North Carolina, who won her District Table Topics Contest this past May. Hurdle points out that headlines tend to be a great source of Table Topics questions. “The more you know about what is going on, the more prepared you’ll be for questions on those topics,” she adds.

Glenn Scales, DTM, of the Bull City Toastmasters in Morrisville, North Carolina, agrees. “You can also diversify your reading interests so that you have more material to draw from,” he says.

Scales also recommends practicing Table Topics by creating your own practice sessions. Look for questions from previous meetings and write them down. You can use these questions for practice later. Members looking for more Table Topics ideas can order the Table Talk card pack (Item #1318) and the Chat Pack (Items #1319 and #1334) from the Toastmasters Online Store. Both packs can be used for practice and in the Table Topicsmaster role.

If there is a theme to the meeting, consider how you might answer questions related to that theme, says Sharon Anita Hill, DTM, Past International Director, region 7. The theme is often included on the meeting agenda. For example, if the theme is transportation, think of a memorable road trip, the first time you rode on a train, or an eventful plane ride. Thinking about the theme before the meeting will keep you from getting too flustered during the Table Topics session.

Hurdle, of Monday Six-0 Toastmasters in Charlotte, suggests speaking to people you’ve never met before when you’re at work events or social functions. “Strangers tend to ask questions that allow us to tell our story,” she says. “We can be more comfortable speaking off the cuff in that situation that is similar to Table Topics.” She also recommends having three stories ready that apply to several different situations. “When you use one, replace it with a different one or be ready to twist it so it sounds different.”

Jim Kohli, DTM, Past International Director for region 2 (parts of California and Nevada), encourages members to always sign up or raise their hand for Table Topics. “Participate as frequently as possible,” he says. “I also encourage people to seek feedback and practice with another person.” Hill agrees with Kohli that signing up for Table Topics is critical. “Even if you are not called on, give the response in your head. Do this for all Table Topics questions,” she says.

Kohli also recommends using breathing exercises to help with nervousness, but says nothing takes the place of practice.


During the Meeting

When the Table Topicsmaster calls on you, what do you do?

Hurdle suggests that speakers be kind to themselves and have fun. “No one is expecting a perfect speech,” she says. “That piece of advice really took the pressure off of me ... I can focus on delivering something genuine.”

Hill encourages speakers to avoid speaking right away. “Speak slowly,” she says. “Take a few seconds to plan your response. If you freeze, pivot to another topic. Mention the question and smoothly change the topic.”

Christopher Pritchard, DTM, of Naples, Florida, recommends that members use as many of the tools for prepared speeches as possible. “Remember the opening, body, and closing, as well as a call to action,” he says. Pritchard also says that members should not use tired statements such as “That’s a hard one,” “Okay, that’s a minute,” and “Glad that’s over.”

If you get stuck, don’t worry.

“Sometimes you just get stumped by an off-the-wall question,” says Scales. “Don’t panic and shut down. Pause (it’s okay) and collect yourself. If you can’t respond directly, take a contrary point of view. You also can pick one significant word from the question and expound on that.”

Serena Gilbert, a member of the Kent Speakers Club in Maidstone, England, says you can draw on a variety of strategies to answer a question. For example, if you’re not eager to answer the question directly, you can use it as a jumping-off point to move in a different direction with your response. Gilbert calls this the “politician and pivot” technique. Imagine you’re asked a question about … making your bed. You could gracefully do a pivot: “Thanks for that thoughtful question about bed making. I was in bed dreaming the other night, and let me tell you what happened in the dream. …”


Presentation and Purpose

Hurdle says that speakers can use their presentation skills for Table Topics. “The idea and the purpose are given to us,” she says. “Start with a story and tie it to the idea and purpose, essentially working backward from how I prepare a speech. The story doesn’t even have to be factual. It does need to be engaging.”

Some clubs even include the role of Table Topics Evaluator. “We see this as a crucial role in listening and giving short, quick evaluations,” says Mish Barad, DTM, member of Birmingham New Street Speakers in Birmingham, England, and Heart of England Club in Solihull, England. “We have found that members—and even guests—really appreciate the feedback and are more likely to see the value in Table Topics.”

Seeing the audience as friendly, not adversarial, is important, says Louden, the communications professor. “The main challenge of public speaking is to realize that the sea of faces in front of you, ready to judge, aware of every mistake, anticipating your embarrassment, is in your head.” He says that the audience members are “likely friends cheering your achievement. They almost will you to succeed.”

Members and experts all agree that your impromptu speaking skills will not improve if you don’t participate in Table Topics. “Your skills improve with every experience,” Kohli says. “I also have it on good authority that the Table Topics participants’ survival rate is quite high.”


Table Topics Techniques

How to answer a question about … making your bed

Past/Present/Future

As a child I used to hate making my bed, but now I do it religiously. I’m sure when I get older, I will go back to my old ways as it will be hard to bend over.

Friends/Family/Strangers

My brother never makes his bed, but my mum always does. I often wonder if they are related! I think 80% of the population make their bed every day.

State—Explain—State

Bed making is boring—It takes ages, you unmake it hours later, and that’s five minutes you could use another way. It’s not right and I refuse to do it!

For and Against (with option to decide)

You could say that making your bed shows discipline and that you have an ordered mind; on the other hand, if you don’t make your bed, you might be seen as a more creative person who is not bound by the rules.

FACT (Fact/Anecdote/Tieback)

Bed making is a constant debate in our house. Let me tell you why … well, I guess you can see the bed making wasn’t the real issue at all.

Politician and Pivot

Thanks for the thoughtful question about bed making. I was in bed dreaming the other night and let me tell you what happened in the dream …

Recap Something Recent

I was watching the news about a warzone, and I thought, why am I worried about everyday challenges like bed making? It helped me gain perspective.




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