This post is specifically written for my friends at Toastmasters Club, an international club dedicated to assisting people with their public speaking skills. “Table Topics” refers to a session during a Toastmasters meeting where participants are called out to do an impromptu speech and are prompted with questions prepared by the “Table Topics Master,” who facilitates the session.
I’ve been to Toastmasters meetings in both Sinchon and Gangnam, Seoul, Korea, and each time I’ve participated in the Table Topics session, I was voted Best Table Topics Speaker almost every time, regardless of whether I gave the speech in English or Korean.
I won the vote despite the fact that other speakers spoke grammatically-better English and Korean than me. I’ve analyzed what I’ve done in those Table Topics speeches and I’m sharing what has worked for me so that you too can become a better impromptu speaker. I’m not here to brag about myself, but simply to share the tactics that have worked for me. If you can learn and internalize even one tactic from this post, it’ll change the way you speak for the better.
Disclaimer: I am not a member of any Toastmasters Club. I’ve attended several meetings as a guest. What follows is solely my own, personal ideas, which may or may not reflect the guidelines in the Toastmasters manual, which I’ve never read.
Consider Content and Delivery
Whenever I evaluate or analyze a speech, I think in terms of two components – content and delivery. To me, content includes the structure and the meat of what you say. Delivery is how you package your content, such as body gestures, eye contact, voice tones, and charisma.
Below is a condensed summary of how I generate ideas for the content and delivery of speeches.
How to Come up with Ideas to Talk about in Less than a Second
To come up with ideas for an impromptu speech, it helps to have read many books and taken notes. I try reading something every day. Highlighting a passage or taking notes is a part of my routine. I also often, though not daily, write in journals. I read and write to accumulate ideas, stories, and metaphors in my brain, on paper, and in Evernote (my go-to note-taking application). I revisit my notes every other month or so, but I almost never read my journal. I think the very act of writing, however intelligible your writing might be, helps your brain retain the information you read. My journal is full of fragmented sentences in terrible handwriting.
During the Table Topics session, when a question has been prompted I only volunteer to respond to a question that I have at least 50% confidence in. My “50% confidence” comes from knowing that I’ll have something interesting to talk about. How do I know if I have something interesting to talk about?
When a question is asked by the Table Topics Master, certain keywords or phrases catch my attention and trigger my brain to recall information I’ve recently read or learned. For example, in a session that I attended in August, the Table Topics Master shared that his favorite movie quote is, “Life is like a box of chocolates” and asked the audience to share their favorite movie quote. That quote triggered a number of thoughts and ideas in my mind in less than a second. Here are some that came to me after I heard the question.
- “Life is like a box of chocolates” is also my favorite movie quote.
- Chocolate has a high sugar content which makes it bad for you. If life is like a box of chocolates, then every decision you make in life could also be bad for you, just like those chocolates.
- If your life is full of problems that you’ll never get rid of, how can you deal with this dilemma
- Stoicism refers to being in control of yourself. I can talk about stoicism and offer a solution to this “life is like a box of chocolates” dilemma by saying something along the lines of, “You can’t always control the situation around you but you can control your response to it.”
- Then, if I have enough time, I’ll try to come up with a specific example of someone who has lived up to such a mantra.
As these ideas came to me I raised my hand and volunteered. I gave the speech and was voted Best Table Topics Speaker.
It just so happens that I’d read about stoicism within the last few months. If I hadn’t, these ideas wouldn’t have occurred to me.
Don’t Give a Straight Answer
So, the first step for generating ideas for the Table Topics speech is to read and have a lot of input. Next, identify a word or phrase of the Table Topics Master and associate it with what you already know. If you try to answer the Table Topics Master’s question directly, you’ll get stuck. Take the question, turn it around, and make it about you. The audience wants to hear what you’re going to say. The content of your speech has to be good, but it’s also true that the audience simply wants to hear from you. So it’s ok to make the question about you – personalize your response.
Google is famous for asking job candidates odd questions during job interviews. For example, they may ask a question like, “How many cows are there in the United States?” Obviously they’re not looking for the correct answer. They want to understand your thought process and watch how you utilize your existing knowledge and experience to creatively come up with a plausible answer to the question. The same can be said for Table Topics sessions. It’s not about giving a straight answer. Take the question, put your spin on it, and make the speech about you and what you know.
How to structure your speech
”Interpretation – Problem – Solution” Formula
Note that as I came up with this chain of thoughts, a sense for the structure of the speech also naturally occurred to me. To put it simply, the structure for this Table Topics speech was:
- Put a personal spin on the interpretation of the cliché and start the speech with an impact.
- State the dilemma, i.e. “Life is like a box of chocolates.”
- Offer a solution to the dilemma.
- Provide a specific example of the solution.
- Summarize the dilemma and/or the solution and end the speech.
When stating the dilemma of “Life is like a box of chocolates.” I said, “Life is bad for you.” The audience laughed because they thought the statement was funny. This became the anchor to my speech, so I made sure to repeat that statement when I closed the speech.
“Empathize and Instruct” Formula
The other Table Topics speech I did in February (which was also voted the best) was structured a bit differently. I gave the speech in Korean, which was not my native language.
The Table Topics question for that speech was, “Why should someone join Toastmasters?”
I knew that my speech would turn out to be prescriptive in nature. I considered saying something along the lines of, “You should join Toastmasters because of reason A, B and C.” But I instinctively knew that going straight to the answer and listing some related facts wouldn’t be interesting, however true those reasons and facts may be.
So instead, I started the speech by empathizing with the audience. I addressed our universal insecurities and shared desires that we, as human beings, have had since childhood. I started with questions like, “Have you ever wondered why people who speak eloquently are more popular than you?” “Don’t you wish you could sound smarter and be surrounded by smart friends?” Opening my speech with an empathetic tone and connecting with the audience made it easier for them to receive my core message – the reason to join Toastmasters. And the irony is, I’m not a member yet.
Recognize that each question requires you to structure your speech differently. For some speeches, you can use the “interpretation-problem-solution” formula, like I did for the “Life is like a box of chocolates” speech. For others, like the “Why join Toastmasters” speech, it’s the “empathize and instruct” formula that works best.
Summary of Idea Generation and Structure
For me, the prerequisite to generating lots of ideas is to (1) read a lot, (2) take notes or write to enhance your retention, and (3) and let your imagination unfold using the word association. It just happens so that I tend to learn better by reading and writing. For you, it might be listening, speaking, watching, or doing.
While I only gave two examples of speech structure, there are actually a lot more. The point is, having a sense of structure, any structure, will keep your speech cohesive and guide your audience.
How to make your audience listen to you
This section is about delivery. Having great ideas is not enough, you have to package the ideas in a way that makes it easy for the audience to receive your message. When you observe people speaking, you'll discover that often times people act in a way that makes their message harder for them to reach the audience, let alone making it easier for the audience to receive your message! If you haven't thought about this, the first step is to stop doing what's not working. Here’s a list of things to fix right now. They have worked for me.
- Keep the tone and volume of your voice consistent.
- Use gestures with intent.
- Put your game face on – smile!
Keep the tone and volume of your voice consistent
Unlike prepared speeches, you’re given less than two minutes to deliver a Table Topics speech. With such a short timeframe, you don’t have the luxury of being able to vary the tone and volume of your voice in for comedic effect, unless that’s the whole point of your speech. In a Table Topics speech, you need to speak clearly, enunciate, and keep the tone and volume of your voice consistent. Make it easy for the audience to listen to you. Some speakers lower the volume of their voice when they run out of ideas, get nervous, or panic – don’t let that happen to you. When a professional pianist makes a mistake performing onstage, she does not make a facial expression or change the way she plays the piano. She keeps on going so as to hide or minimize the mistake. The same can be said for your speech.
Remember, do not let your voice get in the way of your audience’s comprehension. It should enhance it.
Pro Tip: Have someone record a video of you while you talk “naturally” so that you can discover the speaking habits you never knew you had. After you’ve identified and analyzed your speaking habits, decide what you’re going to do more of and what you’re going to do less of.
Use gesture with intent
There are individual differences with the size of gestures people use during their speech. Here, I use the term “gesture” loosely – meaning every movement of your body, not just the hands. Here’s what you should stop doing now:
Head-wobbling or eye-wandering
I’ve seen people who can’t stop wobbling their head while talking and it looks bad. Even I’ve been guilty of this in the past, especially when I get nervous talking to girls. It happens because you’re not sure of yourself and you unconsciously seek the approval of your audience. As a result, you have a hard time maintaining eye contact. Don’t look anywhere else, keep your head straight and look directly at the person you’re talking to.
The same goes for people who step side-to-side, back and forth. You know those guys who don't feel “cool enough” to join the dancing crowd, so they decide to stand by the wall, rocking left and right, while they have one hand in their pocket and the other holding a beer? It doesn't look, and no women would approach them to start a conversation. The same goes for your Table Topic speeches. Be grounded and be comfortable in your own skin. Keep your feet planted and your head straight. Be an oak tree, not a weed that gets blown by the wind.
Hand gestures can be a powerful tool in communication, but shouldn’t be used in excess. Use them intentionally – when you want to emphasize or bring about an emotion.
Fidgeting or moving around is a sign of nervousness. Be comfortable. Use your hand gestures and move your body with intent. Show control over your own body.
Pro Tip: Next time you’re hanging out in a coffee shop, observe the interaction between couples. Does the guy maintain eye contact? Does the girl look away while she’s talking? Where are their feet pointing? Try to guess how long they’ve known each other and how much rapport they have for each other. Then ask them to confirm your assumptions. Ok, maybe this last one is optional for brave souls.
Put your game face on – smile!
There’s an expression in English, “put your game face on,” which means be serious. The moment before a sports player steps onto the field or court, he puts his game face on – he looks serious and determined. It’s a real game, not a practice. He is playing to win.
In public speaking, your “game face” is a smile. That means no squinting – keep your eyes wide open and let your audience see the sparks in your eyes. Your cheek muscles should be slightly contracted and elevated. Smile and exude your positive energy. But you’re tired and you don’t have any positive energy, you say? All the more reason for you to smile and speak loudly and clearly. You’ll actually exude positive energy and feel happier if you change your behavior. You can’t feel or think yourself into happiness. Your behavior has to change, and once it does, your emotions will follow.
I spent a year as a kindergarten teacher and I hated it, but I learned that I had to act funny, friendly, and happy when I taught a class of 5 year-olds, even when I didn’t feel so. That’s what it took to keep the kids’ attention in class. I forced myself to smile and laughed gregariously with the kids. Interestingly enough, within 10 minutes, it changed the way I felt. To this day, I still don’t enjoy teaching kids, but this tactic works – change your behavior and your emotions will follow.
Pro Tip:: Try teaching a 5 year-old something. See how long you can keep his attention without hitting or making the child cry.
In a Nutshell
- Read a lot so that you have many ideas to generate from.
- Don’t answer the Table Topics question directly. Take a word or phrase that piques your interest and talk about what you already know.
- Structure your speech.
- Keep your voice consistent. Act brave even when you feel scared.
- Move with intent. Eliminate unnecessary movements and be confident in your body. Love your body.
- Put on your game face. Change your behavior and your emotions will follow.
Being conscientious about these tactics should help you become a better Table Topics speaker instantly.