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Tactics for Tackling
Table Topics
June, 2014

Taking the Pulse Of Your Club

Table Topics can be the most daunting part of the Toastmasters experience, and it can also be the most exhilarating! The key is how you set the table.

Table Topics can be the most daunting part of the Toastmasters experience, and it can also be the most exhilarating! The key is how you set the table.

Even without knowing in advance the topic you will be asked to speak about, you can prepare your mind and body to carry the day. Here are some strategies for how to win Best Table Topic of your next club meeting or contest.

Pay Attention

Table Topics are about being "in the moment" so it's important to mentally prepare yourself to respond. Are you present when you're about to participate in Table Topics? Or, are you pre-occupied? You want to be 100% attentive to the meeting or contest. What is happening in the room? What has been said already? What is the shared experience you are part of? Has a theme emerged?

Concentrate on Table Topics, not what you did an hour ago or will do an hour from now. Engage yourself with others and the event. Be a part of it. Feel its pulse. After all, you are about to speak to everyone in the room about something, so the sooner you embrace the partnership, the better you’ll be able to connect with your audience when you speak. You can reference things previously said or done that day and win points for relevancy. Just like comedians do during their sets, why not "call back" to something interesting that happened earlier in the meeting?

Be Current

Regardless of what the topic is that you're asked to speak about, you can make it current by linking it to current events. Not just current events occurring in the club that day or night, but also what's happening in your community that week or month, or even in your country at that time. What's trending? That's topical! Fresh responses that link to current events have a special aliveness.

Other examples:

Was the traffic brutal on the way to the meeting?

Was the weather particularly challenging that day?

Is the noise of the construction drilling outside the window vexing?

Was the fire alarm repeatedly misfiring?

All are grist for use as part of your topic response.

Whether you are referencing the recent or upcoming Olympics, the most recent holiday, timely human interest stories of local import or a scientific breakthrough by a local company, each is a shared experience with your audience that will resonate with them. The currency of events has its own buzz of electricity. Tap that power source!

Following First Instincts

So often our first instinct when we hear the topic is the one we should act on. The instinct gives us a head start. Whether our reaction to the given topic is a "gut" reaction deep in our belly, or our mind paints an initial image conjured by the topic itself, your reaction suggests there is a point of view, a line of reasoning or a curiosity to be indulged. Go with it!


Psychiatrists use word association activities to get their patients to say the first thing that comes to mind when a word is posed to them, without self-censoring.

"In working with word associations, we measure the time it takes for someone to come up with a word or idea," says Dr. Doreen Hamilton, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist, www.essentialspeaking.com of Berkeley, CA. Hamilton continues, "If there is a delay, it can indicate that the person is censoring.  They have a first response, but then hesitate.  They think about it, evaluate it, and reject it.  In most cases it is fear that creates this block.  They're afraid they'll be judged and criticized." Simply put, go with your gut!

In my 22 years attending Toastmasters meetings and contests I've seen many topic respondents over-analyze the topic, or try to outwit the topic. Instead, they outwit themselves. Your goal in responding is to deliver a response that everyone in the room can follow and relate to. When contestants over-think the topic they’ve been given and it complicates their response. Your goal: ease and flow!

Consider the principle of economy epitomized by Ockham’s razor. — which suggests that the simplest explanation is best. As you fashion your response for your listeners, you can similarly apply a response with the fewest assumptions. In responding to Table Topics, go with your gut. Go with the initial response you hear in your mind or heart when you first hear that topic and it will likely be relatable by your listeners. And avoid labyrinthine responses.

Sound Advice: You’ll Believe It When You Say It

How many times have you been called to respond to a topic, listened to the topic come from the mouth of the Topic Master, and find yourself without a clue? It happens to us all. You experience a disconnect. Either you either didn’t understand the topic, don’t agree with it, or just don’t want to talk about it. Not to worry. You just have to make it your own. Here's how!

You simply have to take the given topic, and take ownership of it. This can be as easy as simply repeating it, aloud, in your own voice. It can also take the form of interpreting what you heard and repeating it aloud with your own inflection and passion, or disdain, or quizzical tone. You've got to try it on for yourself to know how you really feel about it. Only when you hear it coming out of your mouth, passing your own lips, will you be able to generate a reaction to the topic. Like a piece of clothing seen on a store mannequin, it's only after you’ve tried the attire on and looked in the mirror that you can now see yourself wearing it. In this case, it’s less  "seeing is believing" and more hearing yourself say the topic aloud that helps you take ownership of it. Whether you agree with the topic or not, you only have to wear it for 1-2 minutes!

Inflection Points

Isn’t it funny how one topic can be responded to so differently by multiple contestants or respondents. I once observed a contest where the topic was these seven words printed on a flip chart:

"I can't believe she took the money!"

As each contestant responded it was clear they chose to put the inflection on a different word. Indeed this topic was open to interpretation, as they all are.

The first person emphasized the word "I," implying everyone else believed the accusation except her. The second contestant emphasized the word "can’t" as her credibility made it unbelievable to him. The next contestant’s inflection favored the word "money" and reminded us that there were many more valuable pieces of jewelry right next to the $20! Another contestant exaggerated the word "too" and suggested the culprit, a young girl, was just borrowing it. All seven contestants emphasized a different word and altered the meaning of the topic. You can too! Alter the topic to suit your train of thought.

Foreign to Familiar

All of us approach the lectern with knowledge, experience and our own points of view. Yet the topic may be about a subject we know nothing about. What's a Toastmaster to do in such a case? One strategy to respond to a topic you know nothing about, it to connect from the given topic to a topic you do know about. Our confidence level rises the moment we speak about a topic we’re knowledgeable about.

Topic:           How do you split an atomic particle?
Response:   As a quintuplet I grew up believing everything was divisible by five. All through childhood food, candy and even toys were split five ways…

Nature Is Your Friend

When you're given a topic that's hard to respond to, try looking for an equivalent in nature. Is there a parallel between the topic and some process, pattern, cycle or occurrence in nature? Whether it's related to the weather, the seasons, migrations of animals, or some other natural phenomena. In various Table Topics I've heard these locales mentioned: Mt. Fuji, Iguazu and Victoria Falls, Katoomba, Austalia and the Grand Canyon in the US, the swallows of San Juan Capistrano California, the Auroras Borealis and Australis, as well as the march of the caterpillars, how salmon spawn after swimming upstream and the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Each was a compelling topic response!

Embody the Topic

So much emphasis in speechmaking and responding to Table Topics is put on what to say. Yet often our first communication with the audience can be physical. Sometimes the best way to inhabit the topic we wish to respond to can be physical. One meeting a member drew a topic asking whether he preferred brownies or cookies. He studied the topic and then pounced into action…as The Cookie Monster puppet character from Sesame Street! By exaggerating his body movements he got into character. It was then natural to deepen his voice and widen his eyes. And he unanimously won Best Topic that day.

"Everything starts with your body and breath: the physical production is key to the vocal production" according to actor, director and theater instructor Jane Courant. With a Ph.D in drama and dramatics from the University of California at Berkeley, Courant speaks from 25 years of experience. "Many actors, in theatre and film, will begin with the physicality. That's how they start to build their character's walk and talk. That's where they derive their voice." And so can you.

In Medias Res

In Medias Res is Latin for "in the midst of things." It's a literary technique we find in storytelling, books and movies. When we're given a topic the assumption is that we will build our story or logical argument from that line or point forward in linear fashion. But sometimes we can accept the topic given but place it the middle of our story! We announce the topic at the outset of our response, but spend much of our time filling in how we arrived at this initial sentence. We describe the back story. We explain how it got to this key or crucial point. We use flashbacks to tell the story.

For example, if your topic is "I was accused of plagiarism!" you focus on how this came to be, not what you will do going forward from the accusation. Your next sentence might be "It all started when I was asked how I would fill in the blanks to the following sentence…" and then you tell the steps leading up to the topic's assertion or phrase.

The Answer To Six Questions

Another great framework for responding to a topic is to use the 5 W's and an H. As you address the topic that may be complicated or unclear to you, make sure you seek to answer these six questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? Whether you use a Question & Answer format aloud or run through the checklist in your head, this technique helps you work your way through many aspects of a topic.

24-year Toastmaster Patrick Donadio, MBA, of Columbus Ohio uses this technique for Table Topics at his Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) Toastmasters club meetings in Dublin, OH (478-40), and also in his executive coaching practice www.patrickdonadio.com, to uncover root causes and core information. He suggests beginning your topic, "When I think about this topic I naturally have questions about it. For instance, why…?" A Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) and Master Certified Coach (MCC), Donadio’s book Communicating with Impact, is due out later this year.

Structures for Succeeding

Donadio recommends other formats for responding to topics. One structure is to address both the pros and cons of a topic, spending a minute on each. Suppose you’re given the topic of "a new law mandating zero tolerance for littering." First you can speak to the advantages of such a harsh ordinance. Now, what are the drawbacks to such a draconian measure? You can even remain impartial as you lay out both sides of the topic.

The Temporal Topic

Donadio also encourages speakers to use a three-part approach to fashioning their response, speaking to the past—present—future for a given topic. If your topic is "human rights for animals" you might compare society's past and present treatment of animals and then share your vision for animal rights in the near or distant future.

The Fearless Factor – Physical Tips For Topic Mastery

Jacqueline Wales, author of The Fearless Factor, speaks, writes and coaches on overcoming fear and finding one's voice. www.thefearlessfactor.com As pertains to Table Topics, she advises "first take a deep breath and let it all out before rushing to answer. This deep inhalation clears the mind, and gives you a moment to relax. We are all terrified of making a mistake, looking foolish, or simply not credible. When you take that breath, you give your mind the space to consider what's next."

Wales continues, "Nerves are part of the drive to succeed. It's the adrenaline rush that comes before a performance. Instead of thinking of it as fear, think of this as an extra boost to get you going. After all, we are all failing our way to success, so if you do make a mistake, it's a natural place to be. Just make sure you take the lessons learned and use them for next time. It's a true saying that you never know how much you know until you try to use it."

And the winner is…YOU!

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