Seven Tools to Tune Up Your Table Topics
by Jack M. Kantola, DTM
“Please don’t call on me.” How often have you heard this plea muttered quietly by a member of your Toastmasters club? Why do we have this inordinate fear of standing up and speaking before a group of friends who make up what is probably the most tolerant audience in the world?
I believe it is because we want each and every table topic response to be perfect. We want it to be that memorable response that perfectly (and humorously in most cases) addresses the topic that we have been presented.
Well, I have news for you! It isn’t going to happen. At least not every time you get called on. Maybe we should change our expectations for table topics. Instead of going for a perfect response we should strive for perfect learning.
To understand how this change in perspective works we must understand the purpose for table topics. Most experienced toastmasters would agree that table topics is a process to help you…
- Think on your feet. Think of it as improving your ability to access the hard drive of information contained in your brain.
- Develop a short speech in moments. This is an important perspective on table topics. Instead of just answering the question we are asked we should use the question or topic as the foundation for a mini speech.
- Deliver every message with energy. Remember the importance of connecting with the audience in every communication.
- React intelligently to questions we are asked. In our life outside toastmasters the most frequent use of our table topics skills is to respond to questions we are asked. Table topics should hone our skills at answering those questions.
Looking at table topics as an important exercise in improving our communication skills, and nothing more, will help us utilize that exercise more productively. Here are seven tools to help you do just that…
- “This probably won’t be very good.”
- “I haven’t had time to prepare.”
- “I don’t know anything about this topic.”
- “I’m not good at this.”
Just as it is appropriate to place the ball on a tee at the tee box, there are occasions in speaking where it is appropriate to preface your remarks with a qualifying comment. However, my recommendation is that you avoid them at all costs in table topics. Using a “Tee Up” can create an expectation in the audience that reduces the impact of your presentation and weakens your connection with the audience.
A kissing cousin of the “Tee Up” is trying to prepare in advance for a table topic by coming up with a generic response, usually an attempt at humor. This approach will definitely impede your learning and will probably not help you win a ribbon anyway. Don’t do it. Just address the topic and learn from your response.
Build your knowledge base – The more subjects you are familiar with the easier it will be for you to deliver a short impromptu speech on one of them. If you are not interested in the world, the world is not going to be interested in you. Think about that. No matter if it is in cocktail conversation or in dealing with people in your job, the more you know about what is going on in the world the more effective and interesting you will be. This doesn’t mean that you should try to be an expert on all subjects. Just have enough knowledge about a variety of topics to let you at least ask intelligent questions about them.
How do you build your knowledge base?
- Read books. No, not just easy reading fiction. Set a goal for yourself to read at least six books each year that will improve your knowledge of your career, your ability to communicate, your ability to lead or about what is going on in the world.
- Read the newspaper. At least scan the paper each day or subscribe to one of the on-line news services that e-mail you the headlines each day. Scan the headlines and then read the stories that are most interesting or important to you.
- Watch the news on TV. Yes, I know – it is all bad news. Even so, you
will be more knowledgeable about the world around you.
- Listen to books on tape during your commute. What a great use of your commute time. There is so much material available on tape or CD today. Both books and tapes on self-improvement on a variety of topics are available from your library or bookstore.
Steer your conversations to topics of current interest. All some guys can talk about is sports. While it is OK to have a keen interest in sports it is better to build a broader knowledge base. Talking about current issues helps you put your thoughts into words that you can later use to respond to table topics. Plus, you gain the added benefit of becoming a more interesting person.
Use the topic as a basis for a mini-speech. Too often we make the table topic session a question and answer period. The Table Topics Master asks the question and we answer it. Instead, use the topic as the basis for creating a mini-speech. While we may not know the exact answer to the question asked in the topic we usually have enough information, thoughts, feelings or opinions to develop a 1 ½ minute mini-speech. Work on developing an opening, body and conclusion for your presentation.
Connect with the audience. If we simply respond to the topic presented we are very likely to look primarily at the Table Topic Master when we are making that response. By concentrating on connecting with the audience we are more likely to mold our response into a mini-speech. Look people in the eye. Work on selling an idea to the audience.
Emphasize your physical presentation. Make sure your whole being is delivering your table topic. If we focus on just answering the question in the topic we are more likely to stand in one place, deliver in monotone with no gestures or energy. If we focus on delivering a mini-speech we are more likely to deliver it with more energy and enthusiasm. Consciously strive to put energy into your delivery.
Have fun! Just relax and enjoy yourself. What is the worst thing that is going to happen if you don’t deliver your table topic well? You will not suffer any physical harm. It won’t cost you anything – except maybe for those ahs and the fine for not using the word of the day. The audience you are speaking to is in the same boat as you. They are not likely to sink that boat. The worst thing that can happen is that you don’t win the ribbon for best table topic of the day. BIG DEAL!
The best thing that can happen is that you climb one more rung up your ladder to effective communication. Stretch! Dare to fall on you face! This is the place to try those things you wonder if you can do. How do you think I found out I shouldn’t sing in my presentations?
One of the objectives of table topics in the club environment is to improve rapid access to the information contained in your memory and use it to create a mini-speech. Making up a response in that situation is fine because it helps to break down the barriers to developing a response. While it is permissible to wander from the truth in your table topics response, you should avoid doing so in any communications in your life outside the club.
Utilize these seven tools to tune your table topics and you will gain the added benefit of becoming an effective communicator. You will also become more confident in any situation and more successful in your career.