Table Topics (Impromptu Speaking)

This page has tips and ideas for table topics masters at a Toastmasters meeting.

What is impromptu speaking?

At Toastmasters, Impromptu Speaking is the ability to speak "off the cuff", without preparation and without notes, on a topic you have just been given.  This is a regular part of a Toastmasters meeting, and everyone who does not have a major speaking role at the meeting usually participates in "table topics", or impromptu speaking.

Challenging Table Topics Ideas

Fortune Cookies- Buy a bag of fortune cookies. Each Table Topics speaker breaks the cookie and speaks for their allotted time on the contents of the fortune cookie. Each Cookie has a proverb or a suggestion of something good happening to the person breaking the cookie open.  They then eat the cookies.

Look - no gestures! Describe how to do something without the use of hand gestures.

Pick a prop - Pick a prop and do something creative around/using the prop. Use common household or kitchen items.

Yesterday's News - Read out yesterday's horoscope and ask the speaker to say whether it turned out to be true or not!

Pick a number - Choose a number and say how it relates to you, your life, your work etc.

Let's debate it! - Split the audience into two teams. Speakers debate either for or against the topic. Those who have not spoken vote for the winning team based on the strength of the arguments.

Pick a picture - Speakers are given a picture title, and asked to describe the picture and their motivation for taking it, without having the picture to refer to.

The topic is "tables" - Speakers talk about various types of tables - tax tables, multiplication tables, kitchen tables, turning the tables, coffee tables etc

Give The 411

We have all heard that when describing an event, we should give the basic facts - who, what, when, where, why and how. For example, given the question "Describe your most memorable sporting event," you could respond with what (soccer world cup), when (last summer), where (a party at my best friend's house), why (my first soccer party), and how (rented a big screen TV).  By the time you fully described all those parts, you've given a concise 1-2 minute response.

Divide & Conquer

Organization is important because prevents communication from turning into word soup. Clear divisions are essential to an orderly arrangement. Some of the classic two or three way divisions are: past, present, future; that was then, this is now; low, medium, high; cost, benefit; financial cost, social cost; civil law, moral law; problem, solution; thesis, antithesis; thesis, antithesis, synthesis; us, them; ideal, real; what we want, what we can get; mind, body. The list can go on forever. So, pick a division as quickly as possible and stick to that one.

Narrow the Focus

Sometimes the topic is just too big to tackle as a whole. Take this example, "Describe your most memorable birthday?"  Some related, narrower, topics are most memorable party or gift or card or date.  To begin, acknowledge the original question and then use a bridge device to get to your narrower version.  For example, "There are a lot of things that make a birthday memorable.  My most memorable gift was..."

Divert Attention

This is the quintessential politician's response.  Take, for example, a very controversial subject: "What is your stance on abortion?" Divert attention to a related question.  "My personal views are not as relevant as why this is a divisive issue."  Then talk about the related question.  Sometimes, you may want to avoid the original topic entirely.  You could respond, "Your question is very important, however, today I am much more interested in education." And there is always, "A very good question which reminds me of ..."

Tell a Lie

What happens when you have no experience at all with the subject of the question? You can give up and sit down or use the question as an opportunity to stretch your imagination.  If you are given the question, "What is the biggest fish you have caught?," and you have never been fishing, you could just make up a fishing trip. Or notify your audience that you are letting your imagination run wild, "I've never caught a fish, but I imagine that ... " Be descriptive and detailed.

Ramble On

Sometimes, you can discover something very interesting about the topic at hand by using a brainstorming or stream of consciousness approach.  Start by restating the question.  Then make the first comment that comes into your mind.  Then say the next thing that you are reminded of. As you approach the end of your time, restate the best point you made the original question.

Elaborate

Sometimes the subject isn't the problem, it's the time.  One sure-fire way to put more interest in your speech and to extend the time is to give more elaborate descriptions.  Instead of "the bird" try "the green and yellow bird that took delight in singing at the first sign of dawn."

Impromptu Speaking Tips

Most of the talking we do on a daily basis is impromptu speaking, and so if we can learn how to assemble knowledge and thoughts on any topic at a moment's notice, we will benefit by:

  • Being able to think on our feet in meetings, conversations, and many other settings
  • Having greater confidence when giving prepared talks, because we know that if we 'lose our place', we can talk intelligently on an impromptu basis for a short while till we're back on track
  • Being more skilled in social situations

Be Mentally Prepared

When you are in a meeting keep on top of what is going on, and every now and then think 'What would I say now if called on to give my views? What aspect would I cover? How would I phrase it?' This will help you be calm and collected when you are called on, because you will have mentally practised many talks you've never given.

Take Time

Take some time to get your ideas together - you don't need to give your reply immediately. This not only gives you a few seconds to work out your response, but also gives the impression you are making sure you'll say something worthwhile.

Start with an Example

You may want to talk about an incident from your life that relates to the topic and has a human-interest angle. The advantages are:

  • It's something familiar to you, and it can reassure you when you most need it - during your first few moments
  • You won't have to think so hard about your next sentence as experiences are easy to remember
  • You'll get into the swing of speaking and reduce your nerves
  • You'll get the audience's attention

Be Animated

If you are externally animated, it has a beneficial effect on your mental processes, as physical activity and the mind are closely related.

If your body is animated, your mind functions at a lively pace.

Practice

The best way to improve is to practise regularly. Effective impromptu speaking, like most skills, requires some work and practise. This is why Table Topics is such a valuable part of a Toastmasters Meeting.

Links to More Resources

Toastmasters International Impromptu Speaking Booklet

For more information on the role of Table Topics Master, look in the Competent Communication manual, pages 70-71.