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How to Prepare for Table Topics

When I first joined Toastmasters and heard about Table Topics, it seemed impossible to prepare for it. People said, “You cannot prepare for Table Topics! You just have to get up and do it!”  I probably spread the same idea to others. The idea is part truth; part fiction.  While you cannot prepare the answer to every question you are given unless you work for a psychic hotline, you CAN prepare. This article gives you a generic structure that works for most questions and gives you some tips for content and delivery.


The most important element of speaking off-the-cuff is structure.  Structure separates a clear message from panic-stricken, adrenalin-induced, stream of consciousness, word-association, meandering presentation.

How do you prepare structure on-the-fly?  That’s simple.  Don’t.  Prepare ahead of time. Have a mental model for answering questions.  A generic model that I use for answering most Table Topics questions is Thesis-Point-Point.

The thesis is the premise, the one sentence that summarizes your point of view. Point 1 and Point 2 are the two points that you will use to support, expand on, and explain your thesis.

Identify the common speech structures and practice using them until they become a part of your subconscious.  Don’t try to think of them as you speak; know them before you speak.  When you consistently identify the structures you use in your prepared speeches, you are more likely to have them available in your subconscious for Table Topics.  Here are many of the common structures:

  • Chronological (Past, present, future)
  • Sequential (First, second, third)
  • Cause and Effect
  • Problem and Solution
  • Geographical (Asia, Canada, USA)
  • Categorical (Sales, Delivery, Finance)
  • Compare and Contrast (Big and little, light and dark)
  • Hierarchical: (Top, middle, bottom)
  • Increasing Detail (General to Specific)
  • Building Requisite Knowledge (Know “A” before “B”)
  • Options (Plan A, Plan B, Plan C)
  • Expanding Radius (Branch, Country, World)
  • Priority (Critical, Important, Optional)

Often the Table Topics question suggests a structure:

“If you could solve any problem, what would it be, and why?” Problem/solution.

“Tell us about the places you visited during your last two vacations.” Geographical.

Look at my article “Five Steps to Impact” for a better idea of how to quickly prepare good speeches.  Use it consistently so that it is intuitively available to you for Table Topics. In the contest, you have maybe a second or two to select a structure.

With Table Topics, you have only two minutes, so deliver your thoughts clearly and efficiently.  Take about 30 seconds for the introduction, or about 3-4 sentences.  In that 30 seconds, arouse audience interest in the subject and you the speaker (one sentence), deliver the premise (one sentence), and present the road map of your speech (one sentence).

I prefer no more than two major body points.  You do not have to give three points in your speech (that’s another myth).  Two points feels more comfortable to deliver and gives you less to think about.  Each body point takes 45 seconds.  That’s about 100 words, depending on your speed.  That’s about 10 sentences, or just enough time to get your logic across and stop talking. If you feel like you are running out of thoughts, slow down and use pauses.  That’s give the audience time to listen while you dig up more stuff.

Take 10-20 seconds for the conclusion (one or two sentences). 


We’ve got structure.  Now how do we prepare ahead of time to fill it?  You can’t prepare.  Right?  Wrong!  There are a number of ways.  First get in the practice of reading anecdotal short stories.  The “Chicken Soup” series and similar books will keep you busy.  Second, read and write one sentence quotations, snippets of wisdom that come in handy for speeches or when trying to impress your boss.  Also, the anecdotes, stories, and alliterations you wrote for prepared speeches still work for Table Topics.  Doing a Competent Communicator every year should get you 20-30 more stories.  Keep up with current events in the printed and electronic media.  Audiences love when you show your awareness. 


As you listen to the start of Table Topics, anticipate that every question is “your” question.  Get into a positive mental state, ready to launch your enthusiastic delivery the moment you are called.  Table Topics is meant to be fun, lending itself to exaggeration as you engage in the exercise.  Start smiling before you are called.  If someone else is called, the Table Topics Master will just think you’re nuts and that’ll get you both smiling.

Get ready by visualizing the mental model. I imagine it floating just above my forehead - Thesis-PointPoint... ready to fill in the answers.


As soon as you hear the question, think of the thesis (premise) in a few words, pick a structure, select one or two words for each body heading, and formulate the first arousing sentence.   You don't need the details yet, just the points from which the stucture is assembled.  Control your thoughts and limit your thinking to these elements so your mind doesn’t race off and leave your body.  Once you have these first thoughts, the rest is easier.  If possible, create a flash image or movie in your mind. Then the details of your stories just narrate and participate in these images.

As you rise and approach the front of the audience, get pumped up and decide to launch your speech with self-confidence, a full voice, and connecting with the audience.

“I always prided myself on my ability to solve most problems, but there is still one problem I have yet to solve.  M. Table Topics Master, if I could solve any problem, I would [now here’s the moment of truth] rid the world of Elvis Presley souvenirs {uh oh, what to do? what to do?].  It would have a positive effect on the environment and, more importantly, I would get to know my mother-in-law better.”

Then go ahead and explain yourself with those two reasons.  Ensure you transition between the two points: “The second reason I would … is …”

If you feel nervous, use pauses and deeper breaths to help you maintain the look of calm.  Pretend to be a self-assured speaker until that image becomes YOU.  Yes, that’s right, fake it until you make it.  Be sincere, but fake the confidence.  You are the only person who knows you are nervous unless you show it.  Fake self-confidence if you need to, but be authentic in your emotions, vocal production, and gestures.

Ensure you maintain your energy level throughout your delivery.  I see a tendency to start strong and wane half way through.

With practice, you will soon become an effective impromptu speaker.  With enough practice, you will look forward to Table Topics.


Click the link below to watch 45-minute video workshop "A Method to This Madness" on how to prepare for and answer Table Topics:

Craig Senior

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