January 4, 2023
7 min read
What is Table Topics? Is it possible to prepare to speak off-the-cuff?
Table Topics® is a long-standing element of Toastmasters club meetings. It’s designed to help participants practice impromptu speaking.
Keep reading to learn how Table Topics® works and to get a few tips and resources for impromptu speaking.
Let’s say you’re in the break room at work. Phil from the accounting department engages you in conversation. After briefly discussing your recent holiday experiences, Phil asks what you think about the leadership contest in the U.S. House of Representatives. Later that day, you’re in a team meeting, and your boss unexpectedly asks you about the status of the new website you’ve been working on.
These are exactly the sort of situations that Toastmasters Table Topics® is designed to help you with. What is Table Topics? Toastmasters club meetings have used this exercise for decades. Let’s take a look at how it works and then consider a few Table Topics examples.
A Topicsmaster is designated prior to the Toastmasters club meeting. At the meeting (typically after the prepared speeches), the Topicsmaster introduces Table Topics®. This can be a topic or a question. Often, it’s related to current events or that meeting’s theme.
The Topicsmasters ask for volunteers to respond to the topic or question, or they randomly call on people. Typically, they prioritize people who don’t have other speaking roles in the meeting. They might call on a guest to speak—but only after members have modeled how it’s done. Guests are always given the option to respond or not. The Topicsmaster aims to match the difficulty level with each respondent’s experience.
Each response takes a minute or two. The Topicsmaster keeps the exercise going by managing the transitions until the completion of the exercise.
To get a better understanding of how the exercise works, take a look at these Table Topics® examples and ideas.
The Topicsmaster asks people to talk about a current news story. Even if they don’t know much about it, they could play the role of reporter and discuss the questions they would ask about it to understand the story. Ultimately, the point of Table Topics® is to get experience with impromptu speaking, not to demonstrate what you know about a particular matter.
The Topicsmaster brings a bag full of items and asks people to draw something from the bag and speak about it. Examples:
The Topicsmaster brings or digitally displays images, and people make up stories about them. For example, there’s a picture of a car in the middle of a forest. A storyteller tells about a self-driving vehicle that just wants to get away from it all.
The Topicsmaster asks each person to sell a certain item. For example, the first person gives a two-minute sales pitch for a beach condo in Fiji. The next person has two minutes to tell the others why they should buy a twelve-pack of Christmas stockings. This Table Topics exercise can be done as a Grab Bag or with images to make it even more interesting and fun.
The Topicsmaster introduces one topic or question, and everyone speaks to that topic. For example, What’s one piece of advice that you would give to your younger self? or What’s the best thing going on at work or at home right now? It helps if the topic is one that everyone can speak to.
While Topicsmasters follow guidelines, they (and the club in general) may put creative spins on how Table Topics® is done. The main thing is to accomplish the purpose of the exercise, which is skills development. Let’s look at that next.
When your boss asks you for an update on your project, the purpose is to find out what’s going on with your project. When Phil asks for your opinion on the leadership contest, the purpose is to find out your opinion on the leadership contest.
However, when the Topicsmaster asks you about the war in Ukraine, the purpose is not to learn about the war in Ukraine and your views about it. The point of the Toastmasters Table Topics® exercise is skills development. It’s designed to help members think on their feet and respond quickly yet effectively.
While this is a chance for respondents to develop their impromptu speaking skills, it’s also an opportunity for the Topicsmaster to practice preparation and facilitation skills. And, just like every other element of Toastmasters club meetings, Table Topics® allows everyone to build confidence in public speaking and leadership. Every opportunity to speak and lead is valuable practice and experience.
Toastmasters International partners with Yoodli to help members improve their Table Topics® skills. Toastmasters members can find a Table Topics® button front and center on their version of the Yoodli AI public speaking tool.
You can see in the screenshot below that Varun has one minute to give an impromptu talk about his book recommendations. Yoodli records his speech and then provides instant feedback on his filler words, eye contact, weak words, etc. Practicing without a human audience gives you confidence to speak in front of people!
Toastmasters members can access the Toastmasters version of Yoodli through their member portal (see the screenshot below).
By the way, if you’re not a Toastmasters member, you can access similar impromptu speech games for free with the Yoodli app. They will have you learning and laughing!
Mark Twain said, “It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” Although the attribution is in question, Sir Winston Churchill is credited with saying, “I’m just preparing my impromptu remarks.” While we might chuckle at these clever quips, there’s something serious to be found in the idea.
Toastmasters Table Topics® involves impromptu speaking, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t prepare for it. This article by Distinguished Toastmaster Peggy Beach recommends that you prepare for Table Topics® by reading a lot and staying up-to-date with what’s in the news. This advice works for all impromptu speaking, whether you’re in a Toastmasters club meeting or not.
Beach’s article mentions that the bar is lower for impromptu speaking. In the break room, Phil doesn’t expect you to answer his question about the House leadership contest as though you were Greta Van Susteren or Chris Matthews. Keep that in mind, and treat impromptu speaking like a comfortable conversation whether it technically is or isn’t.
Impromptu speaking is a valuable skill to have, regardless of who you are and what you do. You’re always being called on to speak, whether it’s in the hallway at work, at a dinner with friends, or in a work meeting or interview.
Toastmasters Table Topics® and Yoodli are here to help you develop your confidence and ability with impromptu speaking. Take advantage of these valuable opportunities, and always be prepared to speak off the cuff!
Getting better at speaking is getting easier. Record or upload a speech and let our AI Speech Coach analyze your speaking and give you feedback.