Table Topics Essentials

Table Topics Essentials By Bill Russell

Bill Russell started his career in Toastmasters at London Corinthian in 1995.  He was asked if he wanted to participate in Topics at his first meeting as a guest and won the coveted blue ribbon – and was immediately hooked.  Bill was a member from 1995 until 2010,  and he represented either London Corinthians or Advanced Toastmasters club, Excalibur, in four District 71 Table Topics Championships winning the gold in 1999 and 2002.  Bill moved to Cape Town in 2010, and  took 2nd place in the 2011 District 74 Finals – his first foray into competitive Topics in nine years.

Why do we have Table Topics?

Let’s be honest, most people are rarely required to get up in front of an audience and speak.  And even those who do speak professionally aren’t on a platform all day.  But everyday life is a non-stop barrage of impromptu speaking moments from phone calls, business meetings, lunches and dinners with friends, colleagues and clients and just casual chats around the water cooler (okay – I’ve never actually had a water cooler conversation but you always hear about them so be ready!).  Practicing Topics is the best avenue for polishing all of those social skills, meeting new people, engaging new love interests, developing interviewing techniques, dealing with irate clients on the phone, handling Q&A sessions after a prepared speech or sales presentation or managing the tough question from your boss in a committee room in front of your peers.  How you handle these situations determines the jobs you get hired for, the jobs you keep, the promotions you’re short-listed for, the client list you sustain (and grow), the friends you maintain, the partners you enrich your life with and your ability to procreate.  Therefore, the future of our civilization depends on Table Topics!

Is there a proper way to run a Topics Session?

Most definitely.  Because I love Topics and see them as the most influential thing we do for the majority of our members, I hate going to a club and seeing it done incorrectly.  I’ve been to Toastmasters meetings in the US, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and the UK and it never ceases to amaze me how often clubs don’t get the significance of the task at hand.  Topics is often done as a parlour game, given just a few minutes time as an afterthought or not done at all.

Many times the TopicsMaster asks for volunteers.  Does your boss ask you if you want to answer a question concerning your productivity or does she simply ask it and expect a reply?  How we handle life’s tough questions is a direct indication of how successful we’ll be in life.

At too many clubs the TopicsMaster picks someone to answer the topic before giving the topic, which immediately means the rest of the room doesn’t need to listen and is cheated of the anxiety of wondering, “is this one for me?”  A Topics session is where we perfect our listening skills.  The topic should ideally be said only once, a member chosen and an answer delivered.  That’s how real life works.  We are expected to be listening intently in order to communicate and respond effectively.

My one exception to this rule is in getting a guest or an extremely jittery new member up on stage.  I have been known to give them their “impromptu” when they walk into the meeting.  This gives them time to prepare and start their career by making 1-2 minute speeches that allow them to manage the nervousness and build an initial base of confidence.

So How Should You Run a Topics Session?

Here are my top tips for a TopicsMaster:

  • Obey The Vaughan Evans Rule.  Vaughan made the point early in my Toastmasters career that every member should be given the opportunity to speak – at every meeting.  If you’re not on the programme as a speaker, evaluator or functionary you should be guaranteed a topic.

  • Be at the meeting early.  You need to have a membership list with you and start checking off the names of those members present who are not on the agenda in some capacity.  You should also ask guests if they’d like to participate in topics, if time permits. (Note: If the guest is a Toastmaster from another club, that person is “fair game” for a topic provided all club members will have time for a topic.)  This enables you to:

    • Choose your speaking order to ensure the best flow for the session.

    • Assign the best topic to each speaker depending on his or her ability.

    • Determine if a change in timing needs to be expressed to the audience and the timekeeper to fit in all the members in the allotted time.

  • Prepare challenging Topics.  If they’re not challenging you aren’t preparing the member for life’s difficult situations outside of the comfort-zone of the club meeting.  Let them struggle in a session and receive valuable feedback on ways to improve so that they handle the real-life equivalents with aplomb.  Save the parlour games for a Saturday night with friends.

  • Say the Topic then choose the Participant.  Topics is about listening, learning to handle the anxiety and giving the best answer in a sometimes-daunting situation.

  • Call on One Member at a Time.  I’ve been to too many clubs where 8 people are all called to the front of the room at the same time, waiting for their topic to be given and then, waiting for the others to finish before they get to sit down.  It clutters the stage, deprives the speaker of 25-70% of their audience and makes for an awkward situation that has no real-life usefulness.

How do you become successful in handling Table Topics?

  • LISTEN INTENTLY to the topic.  Not being afraid keeps the heart rate low and the brain pumping out possibilities.

  • Answer the question asked.  Real life doesn’t afford you the luxury of answering the question the previous person answered, waffling through a story that has little to do with the topic or just trying to score the laughs.  I learned a valuable lesson the first time I made the District Final in Ireland.  I had huge laughs throughout my answer and owned the crowd but only took 3rd place.  Countless Irish audience members came up afterwards and told me I gave “the wrong answer” to “is it better to be good looking or intelligent”. I chose good-looking because my mind was streaming with funny ideas on the topic but the Irish play the game differently – use humour but give the right answer.  I never forgot it.  When you consider that Topics was probably developed because most of our daily work and personal life is a series of impromptu speaking engagements, you should strive to give the right answer in almost all of those situations.  Sure, use humour but don’t make a joke of the matter at hand.

  • Never turn down the opportunity to take a topic, give an impromptu 7-minute speech or take a speaking assignment with little time to prepare.  Constantly putting yourself “under fire” allows you to conquer the fear and learn to handle the situation with aplomb.

  • Turn it into a mini-speech.  Strong opening that states your claim, provide stories, stats, quotations and rationalisations that substantiate your claim and summarise with a conviction and/or call to action that rallies the troops.

  • Use personal stories.  If you can provide personal stories that sufficiently parallel and corroborate your answer, you will be a winner in Topics and in most real-life “topics” situations.

  • Be honest and true to yourself.  Don’t try to be someone else.  Unless you’re Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis you won’t pull it off.  Like yourself, trust your opinions and be honest in your answers.

  • Enjoy the anxiety. I’ve personally never been nervous with Topics in a club situation. Sure, I’m a little nervous in a competition but that’s about wanting to win – not fear of failure.  It’s that beautiful rush of adrenalin that I use to my favour.  I don’t let it flood me but fuel me. Take advantage of that adrenalin rush.

  • Keep up with current affairs.  You rarely seem to get topics on current events but, it’s a big help to read the papers or listen to the news – just in case.  More importantly, it gives you access to a large range of answers, stories and anecdotes that you can tie into so many non-current event topics.  When you can map a topic to a current event you come across as extremely intelligent, in touch and in-tune.  A winner from every angle.

  • Engage in conversations with people you don’t know.  You won’t have any idea where the conversation will lead but you’ll have plenty of opportunities to understand the person’s slant on things by the questions he gives, the answers they provide and the facial expressions and body gestures you see when they listen to your answers.  You should be able to find the path that will lead to a fruitful exchange that can get your point across whilst still playing effectively to your audience (of one).

  • Choose an answer “with legs”.  I tend to have a range of answers that quickly come to mind when I stay calm and listen to the question.  I think a good portion of it is autopilot but I always choose the answer I think I can get the most mileage out of in terms of content and time.  I’m in an improvisational comedy troupe and there are so many times that a younger member of the troupe will grab the first thing that comes to their head and spills it out for a quick laugh.  The problem is that the choice has no legs.  It was a brief laugh at the expense of the rest of a 2-5 minute scene.  Take a moment (and we’re talking fractions of a second here) to make sure that you can sustain 2 minutes on whatever angle you choose.  But, just like in improv, once you say something commit to it.

How can I prepare for an impromptu speech?

Mark Twain once said it takes him 3 weeks to prepare for an impromptu speech.  The reality is that it’s simply the repetition of getting up over and over again that removes the variables, lowers the heart-rate and allows you to find the best solutions to the matter-at-hand.  Look seriously at your life.  As an adult, you’ve probably had to deal with death, serious break-ups, losing jobs, severe illness (to yourself or to a loved one) – all life-changing events.  And you’re worried about looking stupid for not handling a Table Topic?  When looked at against this backdrop, how bad can it be to botch up a Topic?  When you don’t allow the “moment” to control you, you control the moment.

Should you “prepare” stories, quotes and anecdotes for Topics?

NO!!!!!!! It is so obvious that this is fake and forced.  I cringe when I watch someone try to cram a giant foot into Cinderella’s slipper.  The only person that doesn’t seem to know it’s never going to fit is the person with the bleeding foot.  BUT, if you take the time to listen to the question with an open and clear mind, you’ll actually find that your brain will supply you with the answers and stories from that vault of wonderful anecdotes – your life’s memories.  When you get in the habit of doing this you find that every shoe (topic) is a comfortable fit and you’re on your way to the ball!

 How do you win Table Topics contests?

Entering the contests is step one.  Listen to the topic and answer the question given, giving the answer that will work best for that audience.  If you give a “canned” story or quote you will get marked down for it.  If you repeat the entire topic to give yourself “time to think” you will be marked down and lose valuable time that could have been used on your response.  Stick with whatever opinion you initially start with and ride the wave as far as you can.

 The biggest fear in the western world has NEVER been public speaking.  We all have known how to speak from our earliest years.  The biggest fear actually is that people will not want to listen.  Trust your abilities, your stories, your emotions and your innate ability to communicate.  Don’t be afraid of failure.  Fear never trying.  Now go forth and multiply!