Friday, October 9, 2009

Toastmaster Friday: 5 Steps to Surviving Table Topics Successfully

Table Topics: while its not quite as bad as getting the third degree, the emotion in the above picture is easily identified with once you've been called on! When I hear people talk about the hardest part of a Toastmasters meeting, the strong majority answer is Table Topics. Sometimes the role of Table Topics Master (who leads the questions) is the easiest role to fill, since that person doesn't actually face a question!

For those who don't know, Table Topics is designed to improve impromptu speaking skills. The Table Topic Master asks a question, then calls on an unsuspecting member of the club to answer it. The goal is to speak for at least 60 seconds, but no more than 2 1/2 minutes, in answer to the question. Many clubs award a 'Best Table Topics' award at the end of the meeting.

I have seen Table Topics questions and answers range from philosophical to absurd to deadly serious to laugh-out-loud funny. Its really in the hands of the speaker - you can turn the question just about any direction you choose, once you are comfortable enough to do so.

5 Steps to Surviving Table Topics Successfully

1. Be alert - listen to the people answering before you, and don't let the Table Topics Master catch you unaware. Even though the questions are different for each speaker (usually), you can catch the spark of creativity from a prior speaker, reference their answer, and, if the topics are themed (ie: Halloween), you can start thinking in those terms ahead of time.

2. Pause - when asked the question, don't feel you must pop up and start talking. Give yourself that 'speaker's moment'. It's longer to you than it is to your audience. An effective verbal pause is addressing your audience and repeating the question (ie: Thank you Mr. Table Topics Master, Fellow Toastmasters, and welcome guests. If I went back to college, would I rather take a Quantum Physics class, or Bowling?). It resets it in both your mind and the mind of the listeners, and can help launch your thought process. It also burns about 10 seconds of your 60 second goal...!

3. Answer the question - at the very least, provide an answer to the question. Even if its a simple yes or no. Back up your reasoning anyway you choose - you can even lie (though that's not as helpful in terms of practicing transferable skills into the real world...or is it?), but answer it.

4. Bridge (optional) - say you don't want to talk about the topic. Answer it quickly, then quickly switch to a topic you can easily talk about. Don't ignore the question, but change the subject (ie: I doubt I'd take Quantum Physics OR Bowling, but I would love to take a class in underwater basketweaving with the football team. I love football....).

5. Logical, Calm Conclusion - when you see the green light, you're safe to wrap up, if you choose. Don't just say "Oh, good, so - Thank you Mr. Table Topics Master" - which I've seen done even by veterans! End by answering the question again, and if you bridged, answer both the original question, and reinforce your conclusion (ie: I can't wait for the game tonight. Would I take a Quantum Physics OR Bowling class? No. But underwater basket weaving? Absolutely! Go Bears! (pause) Mr. Table Topics Master.)

Most importantly, have fun - there's nothing at stake. Toastmasters is designed to be a safe haven, even if you're in a corporate club. The more fun you make it, the more relaxed you'll be. And in a relaxed, yet alert state, you'll find impromptu speaking becomes easier every time you practice.

Next week, I'll talk more about Table Topics theory - how it can help, and how to use Table Topics to its maximum real world value. Today, I just want you to survive.


  1. Very useful tips.

    Any way to get an RSS feed of your blog?


  2. There is now - let me know if you have any problems with it.

    Thanks for reading!



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