Impromptu speaking – aka Table Topics. It’s a key component of Toastmasters – we have Table Topics contests! Why? What’s the deal?
Did you ever have that conversation where you were the most clever, smartest – and wettest, because you were in the shower at the time? You know – when you talked to that person who was going to be forced to reckon with your brilliance and concede that of course, you were right all along?
Have you ever had that kind of conversation when the other person was actually present with you – presumably outside of the bathroom? Me neither. I’m never as eloquent as I am when I’m alone with shampoo in my hair.
Why am I talking about this? I want to make the point that we don’t usually plan out our casual communications and even when we do, they don’t go the way we expect.
Public Speaking for Introverts: Table Topics
How many of the words that come out of your mouth are pre-planned or prepared? The majority of speaking you do in your life is impromptu. You don’t have time to prepare for it.
That’s why it’s so important to learn the skill and to keep practicing it. Social conversations aren’t anything more an impromptu speaking.
Table Topics gets us started with impromptu speaking. For shy people or introverts, it’s a soft start – just a minute long.
You’re given some kind of prompt and asked to respond to it for at least 60 seconds, up to 2 minutes. That’s pretty much the only rule. Maybe they won’t mention a few things, like
- You can lie or make up answers.
- You can change the subject.
- You can ignore the prompt.
It’s just like real life – sometimes you lie, sometimes you duck the question and sometimes you change the subject.
This is not condoning lies, nor are we advocating that you duck your boss’s questions. Nope. Table topics simply gives you the opportunity to practice speaking without preparation – and to learn how to handle the stress of those questions you are asked when you’re not expecting them.
The Power of Story and Table Topics
In English, the four most evocative words are “Once upon a time…” We know that what’s coming is a story.
Humans are hardwired for stories. A 2014 report from the Harvard Business Review says so. Don’t believe it? Do you remember what you paid in taxes last year? Or do you remember how you felt and the process of paying them?
That’s where you can really shine in impromptu speaking. We encourage that with Table Topics.
It’s not easy to put together a story in 1 to 2 minutes on the fly. You do have the option to take a moment and compose your mind to tell your story. It may be best to think about how you want to end it first. * I recommend that all the time.
Table Topics Prompts: Go Sideways
Most Table Topics prompts are questions or situations that you’re asked to address.
Don’t rush to answer your prompt. Take a moment to think about the emotions that the prompt provokes and let that influence your response. It’s important that you don’t let yourself be overcome by emotion – laughing at your own joke or crying takes the emotion away from the audience. Give them the opportunity to feel the emotion, not feel embarrassed for you or by you.
But if you want to win the ribbon for best Table Topic speaker (which is done by vote in some clubs) don’t do the obvious answer. English is a rich language. Using puns and jokes makes your Table Topics answer fun.
With all the homophones in our languages, it takes a quick wit to put a pun together, but believe me, you can do it and enjoy the groans and moans! “What did you do last night?” can quickly become a very bad joke about Knights of the Round Table or Monty Python’s Knights that Go Ni!
Have Fun with Table Topics
As Table Topics Leader, this is a problem with corporate clubs in particular. When your boss is in the room or might hear you say something that you don’t want the boss to hear – you might self-censor. You know your limits – but really – try to have fun. If the boss issue is a problem, going creative rather than just asking questions should make it easier. Instead of asking straight questions, go for the odd. Use props. Ask for stories about childhood events. Get a list of weird holidays from Wikipedia and ask how they should be celebrated. Seriously – have fun with Table Topics.
I can’t guarantee that you still won’t be your most amusing while you’re in the shower, but you’ll improve your conversations when you’re dry and fully dressed. Make sure you hang up your towel when you’re done.
Next time, we’ll talk about evaluations, evaluation evaluations, and evaluating evaluations. We’re going meta.
*This podcast was created in 2016 before the release of Pathways. The information about how to write a speech still stands.