People are curious and curious people ask questions, no matter what situation is. Situations could be anything: a party, proposing a toast, an interview, a wake, or just a small talk. Some questions are comfortable whereas some are not to answer truthfully or you just do not have any clue what to answer. However, the challenge is that you must respond: directly, indirectly, sincerely, honestly or just make up a story.
A Table Topics session in Toastmasters prepares you to respond to such sudden, off the cuff questions. Table Topics master (TTM) is a role in Toastmasters’ meetings. A table topics session that lasts normally for about 20 minutes is conducted by a TTM. He/she invites members as well as guests one by one to speak for about 1-2 minutes impromptu on a topic given by him/her. Generally, a typical meeting fits in about 4 to 6 speakers. A TTM role is very much sought after because unlike other roles in a Toastmasters’ meeting, this is the only role that does not require impromptu evaluative skills. However, this role can make or break a meeting often the Table topics are the first session of a meeting. Therefore the table topic master often sets the momentum, energy as well as the tone of the overall meeting and creates a warm and inclusive environment for the guests as well as the members.
I was introduced to Toastmasters for a brief period long ago. However, I was not active then. Having nothing much to do in Brunei in evenings, joining a toastmaster’s club was a good option. I am a member of Brunei Speakers’ Club from last 16 months.
When first time I played the role of TTM at Brunei speakers club meeting, I created a theme around which table topics were prepared. I also declared the theme in advance. I like to make table topics revolve around a pre-declared theme because a theme allows a speaker to centralize the content of the speech quickly and that done, the speaker can focus on the structure of the speech. Further, the audience gets to witness a variety of perspectives on the same idea. Having a theme to the table topics was appreciated by the then Club President since the BSC meetings earlier did not have a theme.
Selecting impromptu speakers in a table topic session is an interesting task. When I am the table topics master, I make a mix of experienced and novice speakers. In a peer to peer learning setting such as Toastmasters,’ this brings interesting results. Novices get to learn from experienced ones as well as experienced speakers get to see fresher as well as unusual approaches from novices. If there are guests, I generally take their prior consent if they would like to speak. For first time guests, it can get baffling to speak impromptu at times, so I invite them after a few others have spoken. This way the guests get a sense of what table topic session is all about. I prefer not to check upfront with other members of the club about their willingness to speak. I just invite them straightway. Quite often some members avoid eye contact or show busy with checking their messages. So it is a good clue that they are either nervous or are not interested in participating. There is no hard and fast rule if you should invite them to speak up. But at the same time, it is Table topic master’s duty too, to prepare these otherwise shy members for impromptu speaking in line with club’s mission.
Once our club did not have prepared speeches. It meant that entire two sessions we were going to have table topics only. We thought of making the best use of this opportunity as soon we were going have a table topic contest. I watched videos of past table topics contests whichever were available and gave similar topics. Here I deviated from having a central theme. This session was going to see more than 8 speakers so I got two evaluators and I asked them to evaluate alternate speakers. Generally, Table topic evaluators (TTE) do not get time to prepare their evaluations as they are asked for their report immediately after the table topic session finishes. Having each of the evaluators evaluate alternate speakers ensured that the evaluators now had ample time to prepare the evaluations and provide the impromptu speaker’s feedback in the light of upcoming contests.
My TM friends many times have sent me feedback personal messages about the topics I select. Some said the topics were challenging and for some the topics motivated them to become a better speaker. Some felt that the session became fun because of the order in which I chose the speakers. Table topic master requires some skills as well as insight and some knowledge of speakers. My recent TT session theme was on balance. For that, I chose some sentences from fictions as table topics signifying that they can be answered in the context of “Balance” which was the theme of the meeting. For a table topic,
“Physics depends on a universe infinitely centred around an equal sign”
I chose a member who was working as a scientist. He focused on word “equal” and made a speech. He spoke on chemistry and chemical equations that have equal to sign. He completely disregarded to relate it to physics. The next speaker got the following topic.
“Something is always born out of excess. It is that something which balances an excess”.
Her topic had no words related to science, but she took some hint from the previous scientist speaker and also influence! She cited Newton and mentioned Newton as an outlier who thought of an apple in an unusual way. Often the first speaker sets a direction for the entire session. So, in my opinion, choose one who is not intimidating and in general appears amicable to the group.
In the same session, I invited some speakers to talk about a topic which was against the theme of balance. For a moviegoer member, I had a topic line from a Star Wars film whereas for a member interested in catering I gave out a line on sandwiches. Although these members did not talk about the film or sandwiches, familiarity with core words anchored them to deal with the topic.
What makes a topic difficult or easy is very – subjective. If you ask me to speak about a fun day in my life, I find it difficult to structure but if you ask me to speak on Brunei’s educational policy, I find it easy. Some find longer table topics difficult. However, I do not think that is always so. Many times a longer topic provides many ways to approach a topic. When I gave out following topic
“The reason that one should not pursue balance is that magic does not happen in the middle. Magic happens only at the ends”
Some members were in the audience found it difficult just because it was long. A longer table topic is more about comprehension than difficulty. The person who attempted it was a seasoned Toastmaster. First, he moved in the middle of the stage and then at the ends trying to place the context correctly and started from there to construct the speech. When a table topic is longer, my advice to the speakers will be to understand it as a complete sentence for meaning creation rather than to select a core word.
A table topic session can be played a simplistic role where the master simply asks prepared questions or a role that adds value to the session. To add value to the session, a TTM can provide interesting segways between the two speakers. He/she can highlight an important point from a speaker’s speech or provide an elaboration/correction to something that was missed by the speaker. He can also summarize a crucial issue that was brought forward through the topic.
Being a Table topics master as well as a table topic speaker both are an important skill. We often need to play both roles in life. Go no further. In beauty pageants too, such questions are thrown and your response to it can make or break your chance at winning the crown.
The 2017 miss world was asked a question,
“What job should be paid highest salary?”
She chose an answer which was emotional and direct. And she associated love and respect for the job as against the conventional meaning of salary.
They say her answer won the hearts of judges.