The right way to prepare for Table Topics

By Dennis Dawson

Table Topics are an important part of the Toastmasters learning program. The ability to think on my feet, come up with a cogent response, and smoothly respond helps me on a daily basis. In business meetings, I’m seldom taken off guard when my boss asks for an ad hoc report on project progress. A job interview is pretty much a series of 10-15 table topics. Table Topics have helped me immensely on a personal and professional level.

Given their value and importance, you might wonder, then, why aren’t there more lessons about how to deliver a table topic in the Pathways program? The answer is simple. There are no specific lessons about how to give a table topic because every lesson in Pathways helps me to deliver an effective table topic.

Conventional wisdom might make you think that to give effective table topics you would simply practice giving table topics. But that’s not how it works.

Think of it like jazz music. You don’t just pick up a trumpet and start noodling around. One way or another, you have to learn the fundamentals of music theory, chord progressions, and how to play the instrument. Once you have the basics down, you’re ready to improvise.

On the television competition show Chopped, 4 chefs open picnic baskets and prepare a restaurant quality dish with surprise ingredients. They use their extensive knowledge of recipes and cooking techniques to improvise a tasty dish. To successfully improvise, it’s important to have a firm grasp on the fundamentals.

When scheduling meetings, I will occasionally sacrifice Table Topics to allow for longer lesson speeches or an extra speaker. This isn’t because Table Topics don’t matter. I do it because giving or observing a speech with an interesting introduction, smooth transitions, and a strong conclusion builds the skills we can use to quickly formulate a table topic and deliver it with engaging vocal variety and clear body language.

Now, for Table Topics contests, I’ve heard some competitors say that the trick is to memorize 6-10 2-minute stories with themes like, Respect, Integrity, Service, Excellence, Humility, Perseverance, or Sacrifice. One of these stories is bound to fit the typical Table Topics question you hear at a contest. That’s probably good advice.

Personally, I don’t do that. I prefer to honestly react to the question that’s asked. I feel that’s what Table Topics are at their core. This could be why I’ve never won the district Table Topics contest. I’m more interested in developing the genuine skill of impromptu speaking than I am in winning a ribbon.

Another skill I’ve developed in Toastmasters is extemporaneous speaking. An extemporaneous speech is an unprepared 5-7 minute speech on a topic with which you’re already familiar. Extemporaneous speaking is the bailiwick of district officers. As an officer, I’m continually asked to “say a few words” at a club meeting or Toastmasters event. I can easily conjure up a speech tailored to the moment, cobbled together from speeches I’ve given in the past.

Toastmasters gives me the opportunity to improve my impromptu speaking by giving prepared speeches using the Pathways curriculum. I have the opportunity to improve my extemporaneous speaking, by serving as a district officer. I encourage everyone to take advantage of all aspects of the Toastmasters experience to get the most from the club. As the saying goes, if you get out of Toastmasters all you can get out of Toastmasters, you will never get out of Toastmasters.