By: Susan Dugdale | Last modified: 08-25-2023
Table topics is Toastmaster International parlance for all things impromptu speaking. It's the umbrella term they use to refer to the portion of the meeting set aside to focus solely on developing impromptu speaking skills i.e., a table topics session, as well as the topics themselves, the speakers and their speeches.
Before it was adopted by Toastmasters, table topics was the name given to prepared conversation starters: suggestions of things you could easily talk about with family, friends and other guests, over dinner.
The reason behind using them is to bypass the possibility of potentially embarrassing, stilted question and answer exchanges, or worse still, awkward silence.
The best table topics are open-ended: encouraging free-flowing conversation on non-threatening or polarizing topics.
The Table Topics session is set up in advance of the club meeting by the person who has been given the role of Table Topics Master*. Ideally, they'll have thought through the session from its set-up to its close.
They'll have checked in with the person chairing the meeting (the Toastmaster of the Day*) to find out:
(*The people carrying out these roles all have specific tasks to do. To find out more see Toastmasters International -Club Meeting Roles.)
With all that information in hand, they'll prepare a list of topics, and a list of members to call on to speak. (Anybody who hasn't either a prepared speech to give, or a significant role in the running of the meeting, is fair game.)
A typical session in the club I belonged to was approximately 20 minutes long: time for 6-8 speakers. It ran fairly predictably, regardless of who was fulfilling the Table Topics Master role, and it was always looked forward to.
To open, the Table Topics Master generally gave a small introductory spiel (talk) about the value/purpose of table topics, and how the session was going to be run. While this was mostly for the benefit of newcomers, or guests, it also served to give the session structure.
They'd explain that they were going to call on a speaker, who would come to the front of the room, and they'd shake hands.
Then the speaker would be given a topic on which they would talk for a minimum time of one minute and a maximum time of two minutes, timed by the Timer.
When they had finished, the Table Topics Master would shake their hand once more and the speaker would return to their seat, amid clapping from an appreciative audience. Then another person would be called up and the process repeated.
If there were guests at the meeting, after they had watched three or four speakers, they were given an opportunity to either briefly introduce themselves or take a topic if they wished to.
After the last speaker, the Table Topics Master, closed the session, thanked the participants, and handed the running of the meeting back to the Toastmaster of the Day.
Other than the Timer and the Table Topics Master, there are often two more people listening intently, and making notes, on what is happening throughout the session. They are the Ah-counter and the Evaluator.
The Ah-counter is listening for repeated filler sounds (ums, ahhs, ers...) words (like, so, yeah, actually, really...), or phrases (you know, I mean, by the way...) and making a tally of them.
During the evaluation part of the meeting, they will be called to report on their findings. E.g.
The purpose is not to shame but to highlight habitual speaking patterns that detract from what is being said.
Becoming aware of what we actually say and do, rather than what we think we do, gives us an opportunity to learn to pause, or find other words.
There's a Toastmasters' joke that if someone moves and speaks during a meeting it will be someone else's job to evaluate how they've done, regardless of whether it's finding the mugs for the half-time coffee/tea break or handing out flyers for the next major Toastmaster hooley (get together). Although that's an exaggeration, receiving an evaluation and giving one is one of the most valuable aspects of belonging to a club. We learn so much from them.
Through feedback we find out if the speech we gave appealed to our audience.
And most importantly, we receive specific suggestions for improvement.
For more see Speech evaluation - giving and getting structures, informed speech feedback. There's a printable example evaluation form to download for your own use.
A thorough evaluation done by an experienced person is gold.
For instance, thanks to receiving speech evaluations, I learned my hands behaved like a pair of frantic flapping birds when I got excited. They danced distractingly: flicking this way and that. They had to be slowed down and given specific gestures to make, ones supporting what I was talking about.
I found out I rolled my eyes skyward while inwardly scrabbling for the next few words to say. Again, disconcerting for the audience.
And there was, sometimes, a lamentable lack of structure. A rave, a tenuously connected string of ideas, however inventive, is not a Table Topics speech. Right. Got it. It took practice, a lot of it, before I became a better speaker.
A good Table Topic is one inviting the speaker/respondent to use their imagination. It does not require prior knowledge of the subject to give an effective response, and neither is it a question inviting a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer.
For example, anyone can respond to universally applicable, open-ended questions or topics like these.
They will elicit entirely different speeches depending on who receives them.
Jump to 80+ good table topics questions.
In my experience, Table Topics is fun when it's run smoothly and lightheartedly by the Table Topics Master, and the topics they've chosen are ones the speakers can relate, and respond, to relatively easily.
Topics requiring specialist or specific knowledge tend to panic inexperienced speakers when they don't have a clue about the subject they've been given. They'll flounder into umming and ahhing.
However, the same topic given to someone who knows what they're doing, will be calmly and neatly sidestepped if they have nothing to say on it.
For instance, being asked to talk on 'Nuclear fission and its role in shaping the modern world' would have many people gasping. (What?! Goodness gracious!)
However, someone experienced could change it to a topic they were interested in. Like this:
"Ah, yes, fellow toastmasters, 'nuclear fission and its role in shaping the modern world'. It's a worthy topic, a weighty one."
"You know, I've been rehearsing in my mind for a long time what I'd say if I ever was asked to speak on something I had absolutely zero knowledge of. And here it is, at last, - an opportunity not to be passed up, one to grasped and grateful for. Thank you, Table Topics Master!
So, here's the deal. I am going to exchange your topic for something I'm equipped to speak about.
Ladies and gentlemen, dahlias. Yes, flowers, specifically, dahlias. You're going to get approximately one minute on how these glorious autumnal blooms, available in a riot of vibrant colors have shaped my world, for the better."
To make the table topics session fun prepare topics you know the people you're going to give them to can handle. Be kind. Be creative and, be real.
While the ability to sidestep a topic is useful, don't make them unnecessarily tough. The goal is to have people willing and ready to speak.
(It's also handy to have a couple of extra topics in case you suddenly find you have time for more speakers. And if you want to give people specialist topics, match the person you've chosen to speak with a question/topic tailored specifically to target their personal experience and knowledge.)
By taking part in Table Topics, Toastmasters' members develop the ability to organize their thoughts quickly under pressure and to respond calmly, and appropriately, to impromptu questions.
And through witnessing a Table Topics session, being in the audience: listening and watching, we learn what works and what doesn't.
At a very practical level the principal benefit is being able to readily take opportunities to speak up either for yourself or on behalf of others who don't have the confidence, skills or experience to speak for themselves.
For instance, a competent impromptu speaker can readily give a good welcome speech, a thank you speech, a toast, or answer questions well in a meeting or at job interviews. They know to make small talk: how to chat easily and thoughtfully to people they're meeting for the first time, and their facilitation skills are good too. These are all highly valued assets in either private or public life.
If you want to extend your career possibilities, participating in Table Topics is a great way to acquire sought after leadership skills. You'll learn to become a better speaker, a better listener, and a better communicator in a safe supportive environment. And it's a lot of fun!
Before deciding on a set of topics, check with the Toast Master of the Day, on the theme of the meeting. Can you extend that into your questions?
Is there a 'word of the day' to highlight too? Can you work it into your introduction? Can the speakers use it in their speeches? Make that a challenge and ask the Grammarian to keep a tally.
There's a printable to download for each of the four sets of table topics. (Please note they will open on a new page.)
For instance, if the theme is Christmas, here's a collection of 20 topic ideas to fit, with a printable.
Get the printable: 20 Christmas themed table topics.
Or if the meeting theme is 'life lessons' the speech topics could be:
Now get the printable: 20 life-lesson table topics.
And here's some great ideas if the meeting theme is the importance of music:
Download the printable: 20 music themed table topics.
Get the 20 thought provoking questions printable.
If your group of potential speakers are experienced*, try taking along a non-see-through bag full of smallish mysterious objects.
Ask each person to reach into the bag and pull out the first object they touch. This is what they'll speak about. You'll get inventive, imaginative story telling on a grand scale - what the object is used for, who it belongs to, its curious back story, its worth on the international market (priceless), ...
When I use this idea, I go around my home looking for items that don't readily reveal what they actually are, how they are used and, that are robust enough to be handled safely. I put one in the bag for each person and a couple of extras to be on the safe side.
For instance: a small spiky ball made out of some sort of hard black plastic compound, a sharpened, polished wooden stick with a large glass bead glued on one end of it, an old, tarnished silver-plated rack thing with a handle, a piece of curved polished stainless steel, a soft squishy egg made out of green gel, and so on.
*Some topic ideas are more difficult for newcomers than others. Ones asking for highly creative responses might bewilder inexperienced speakers. If in doubt, check with the person if they want to participate before asking them to speak. Once they've seen what others do with topics like these, they're more likely to give it a go themselves sometime in the future.
Here's another effective easily prepared table topics idea. Take a look at the current events pages of your local papers. What you want is a collection of evocative headlines - one for each speaker and a couple of spares.
Here's some examples from my local newspaper today:
Cut your chosen headlines out. Fold them up and put them in a container. Have each speaker select one to use as a starter for their speech. What they say needn't be true! Encourage 'alternative facts': creative, inventive storytelling.
If you're looking for more impromptu speaking resources check these out.
Master your Toastmaster icebreaker: a thorough step by guide, with examples, going from selecting a topic, writing and rehearsing, through to delivery. With an example icebreaker speech.
60 body language speech topics: a selection of topics carefully chosen to encourage expressive use of the body and voice. Any of them would be suitable for any project highlighting body language and/or vocal variety.