Table Topics: Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking

Table Topics overcome your fear of public speaking impromptu Toastmasters 101

The fear of public speaking is an insidious thing.  It grabs us when we have time to prepare our presentation, and its hold is just as strong when we don’t have time to prepare.  But so much of our communication is impromptu speaking – how do we cope with our fear of public speaking when we don’t have time?  In Toastmasters, we have Table Topics.

Learning to Cope with Table Topics Coping with Unexpected Fear

There’s a lot of people talking these days about politics.  In the US, this is a presidential election year, so we’re used to the upswing.  Add the current social unrest and we’re seeing even more people talking on the media, at public meetings, at events… Sometimes we have time to prepare those remarks, sometimes we don’t.

How do we cope with the paralyzing fear of the unexpected question in front of other people? Today on the podcast, let’s talk about impromptu public speaking and how to do it well.


Do you have a message you want to tell the world?  Do you need the public speaking skills to do it?  Then Toastmasters can help.  We teach you how to speak – and how to make it effective. This is Toastmasters 101 and I’m your host, Kim Krajci.

Table Topics is one of the sections of a Toastmasters meeting.  It’s generally about 20-25% of the meeting.  The Table Topics Master or Leader is to produce a prompt that will inspire a speaker to be able to respond in 1 to 2 minutes.  Most clubs have 3 or 4 speakers per meeting.

How your club manages Table Topics is part of the club culture.  I know one club that starts their meeting with Table Topics and everyone participates.  They say it’s to warm everyone up.  That works for me.  I don’t like meetings without Table Topics and I don’t really care where they are on the agenda.

Leading Table Topics

As Table Topics Leader, you have a lot of leeways.  Your choices are wide and limited only by your sense of taste and your imagination.  I have a number of props that I like to use when we’re in an onsite, such as a collection of water bottles or a set of sunglasses.  I give the volunteer a choice of the bottles with a superpower listed inside – the prompt is to talk about it.  The sunglasses have prompts that encourage thinking about visions – of the future, for the future, of the past, – that sort of thing.

I’ve seen images or pictures for prompts.  I’ve seen vegetables and toys.  I’ve gotten prompts about the past, present, future, alternative future…  You can find lots of prompts online for Table Topics.

Some clubs do have evaluations of the Table Topics speakers.

That’s a very interesting idea to me – because I think that impromptu speaking is what most of us do most of the time.  Getting an evaluation of a Table Topics speech would be valuable to me.

I’m going to do something new on this episode of Toastmasters 101.  I’ve done interviews before, but I’ve never done this.  We’re going to get my friend Jenilee Taylor on the line and we’re going to do Table Topics right here and now on the podcast!

Jenilee Taylor currently serves as the president of my Toastmasters club – Cuyahoga Falls Toastmasters and a past district director of District 10.  Last night, I laid out a challenge to her:  I will give her a Table Topics prompt and she’ll give us a speech.  We’ll talk about what she said and then we’ll turn it around and she’ll give me a prompt, then we’ll evaluate what we do differently and how we could have done better.

[no transcript available]

(For the record, my table topic speech was 1:31 minutes long.)


One of the keys I have to Table Topics is to tell a story.  That’s my favorite – even more than rants, which are always fun.  Who doesn’t love ranting about something that’s annoying you?  But stories are so much better because you have a chance to really engage your audience.

In order to give a Table Topics story in 2 minutes requires some fast thinking – or some good preparation.  Podcaster and storyteller Matthew Dicks talks about a game he plays with his children and his students called 3,2,1.  The speaker is given 3 words – physical objects.  Then the speaker has 1 minute to think about what to say, and then has 2 minutes to speak.

It’s a Table Topics challenge – broken down into a step by step basis.

That’s what you can do – think about your stories of your life and get those ideas worked into stories or even outlines that you can remember.

Risk in a Table Topics Speech

Another way to think about stories in Table Topics is to consider the risk.  Risk is what hooks people into a story.  What’s going to happen?  How’s it going to work out?  In this situation, you probably need to know where you’re going to end before you start, and try to build up suspense as you tell the story.  I’ve been trying to do this more in my table topics responses.  I’m happy when I can pull it off!

Unprepared Table Topics? 4 Keys to Help

So what about being afraid of impromptu public speaking?  What happens when we don’t have the time to prepare?

First of all, I think you need to stop thinking about your body.  Force yourself to ignore your physical reactions.  Concentrate on your topic and content.

Think about it.  When you are having a normal conversation, you aren’t thinking about your hands shaking.  You’re thinking about what is being said to you and what you’re going to say in response.

Second, when we’re faced with the impromptu question, we need to frame it in such a way that it doesn’t trigger panic.  It’s not always a challenge when we’re asked a question.

Let’s remember that asking a question is the start of a dialog.

Third, try to think creatively.  As you develop your public speaking presentation skills, you will be able to pay more attention to your content than your body and face.  What will keep your audience’s attention will be more important than your stage fright symptoms.

Fourth, go for the funny.  Humor covers a lot of presentation sins.  If you can make people laugh, they’ll ignore all the ums and ahs.  Unless they’re Toastmasters.  Then we’ll notice them.

If you’re a Table Topics leader with a number of newer Toastmasters who are going to be your participants, try to pick easy and fun prompts.  “What’s your superpower?” is far less intimidating to newbies than “What’s your philosophy of government?”  I’m not a newbie and that’s still an intense question.  I love Would You Rather questions or single word prompts that have multiple meanings.  Like the word “stone.”  That can go in a lot of directions.

Your job at Table Topics Leader is not to trip up the members.  It’s to give them an opportunity to hone this vital skill.

This is why we always want to have Table Topics in a Toastmasters meeting.  We need to learn how to think on our feet as it were.  It does come down to self-confidence again.  Confidence in your ability to tell a good story.  Confidence in your skills.  And finally, confidence that you can do this – you do it all the time!

Wrap it up, Kim

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Toastmasters 101 is a podcast production of Toastmasters District 10.

My thanks to Jenilee Taylor -she’s always up for fun on this podcast.

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Make sure you volunteer for table topics at your next meeting – either as a speaker or as a leader.  See you next time on Toastmasters 101 podcast.