As a Table Topics Master, leading the Toastmasters Table Topics session, you have an opportunity to help to develop people's ability to speak in an impromptu way, extemporaneously, improvisedly. Some people argue that these words differ, but every dictionary I found gave them the same meaning, which we will describe as delivering (a speech in the case of Toastmasters) with little or no preparation. Works for me.
The reason for participating in Table Topics differs slightly for every person. For some, it is to overcome the deer-in-the-headlights, emotionally hijacked audience shock. Gulp!
For others, it is to create a favourable impression in a job interview, somewhere between survive and flourish. Others need to appear credible when responding to questions in meetings at work or other organizations.
As the Table Topics Master, we can first create an enthusiastic environment within which it is safe to play. Be enthusiatic. Be big and be fun.
Be clear. Explain the purpose, procedure, and timings, partly so any guests and participants and partly for your own practice. Encourage everyone to play full on, with enthusiasm. Encourage them to expand their range of voice, facial expression, and body movement.
When selecting questions, whether it be session-to-session, or within a session, provide a mix of serious questions to prepare us for the workplace and fun and frivolous questions. Exercise both abilities. Also, the purpose of the exercise is not to try to stump the speaker with ridiculously complex questions that lead to failure. The purpose is to facilitate their practice in thinking on their feet about a subject they likely know and be able to structure and present it on-the-fly. The newer the speaker, the easier the question, requiring no prerequisite knwoledge.
If you know something about the speaker, tailor the question for them. The more relevant the question to the person's work or life experiences, the more relevant Table Topics will feel for them.
Questions for new speakers:
- What is your favourite colour and why?
- Tell us about one of your favourite activities.
- If you could make anything better in your office, what would it be and why?
- [Hold up a prop, like a stuffed animal] Here is my little pet Fluffy. How does Fluffy make you feel?
- You work in [field]. Tell us what you enjoy about your work.
- What are some ways you deal with confliect at work?
- I am the owner of a company that [business area related to the speaker]. Why should I hire you?
- If you could have picked your own Table Topics Question, what question would you pick and why?
- What is the meaning of life.
- [Hold up a prop, perhaps a tool] Please explain what this is called and how you would use it.
- [Hold up a book with a provocative title and it doesn't matter is the speaker ever read it] Tell why you desperately believe that EVERYONE in the room must rush out after the meeting to buy "Astrology for Dummies"
- You work in [field]. If you could pick any other field of work, what would it be and why.
- [One person tells a story while a second person acts it out.]
- Chain Reaction: Speakers must continue until they are out of time. At the end of one response, listen for an interesting word or phrase. Then ask the next [advanced] speaker to pick up where the previous speaker left off.
- You work in [field]. What do you believe is the next great advancement in that field?
- If you were a moose [or any large animal], demonstrate how you would attract a mate.
Never give out questions ahead of time on paper or otherwise indicate the sequence of speakers. When you know someone else is preparing to answer a question, what do YOU do? You shut down. You turn off your creativity. Instead, say the question twice, pause, and then announce the speaker (select the speaker ahead of time, but do not announce the selection until after the question). This thinking process is part of the exercise. It forces everyone to think about their answer. Everyone participates at some level for every question.
In sequencing speakers, I do not have a strong opinion on whether to put the advanced speakers first or last. If you put an advanced speaker first, will less advanced speakers feel intimidated or inspired? I don't know. I think it can be an individual response. The safer everyone feels about what happens and the less people are trying to outperform each other, the less sequence will matter. Our mantra is something like, "We practice in the oratorical gymnasium where the results don't matter, so just play big and have fun." It might help to select your loudest, most enthusiastic person to set the pace by going first.
If a speaker gets stuck and freezes, hijacked by their emotions, ask him or her to remain standing. Ask an open questions about what she or he said so far:
- Perhaps you can tell us what happened to X after that...
- Can you describe how you felt about X...
- Describe for us what led up to X...
If you let the person quickly sit down after getting stuck, because you don't know how to handle it, they are left with another emotional reinforcement of their belief that speaking in public is difficult. Instead, calmly and safely take the opportunity to facilitate their fighting and conquering that emotional hijacking. It might take more than one question to cover the two minutes. All good. After the person finishes, with a gently agape smile, remind the person that she or he spoke for two minutes. "You CAN do this. Well done! We had a breakthrough today."
So far, in facilitating responses, 100% of people were able to answer my questions and continue speaking.
After a table topics response, lead the enthusiastic applause, summarize and seque to the next question. People enjoy when you can connect a response to the next question.
Table topics has infinite variations and questions. The key points are to select serious or silly questions tailored to each speaker, set and maintain enthusiasm, and announce the speaker's name AFTER you say the question. In this way, your Table Topics session will be relevant, creative, and expansive.