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The Importance of Impromptu Speaking

My Toastmasters Series – Part V

Have you ever found yourself in that difficult situation where someone asked you a challenging and unexpected question and you didn’t know where to start? Imagine a situation like an important business meeting at work or a job interview. Or even an intense conversation with your partner or a friend. In situations like these, most of us would either freeze or start saying long ehms not knowing what to say and trying to buy some time.

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Imagine instead if you were able to keep it together, think on your feet and respond to the question decisively and assertively, being able to convey your message effectively and concisely. This specific skill is called impromptu speaking. It’s basically about giving a speech without any preparation whatsoever. After all, providing an answer to a question is just like giving a speech.

Luckily, if you’re a Toastmasters member, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice this skill. That is thanks to the Table Topics session that happens in one of the two halves of a typical Toastmasters meeting¹.

A Table Topics session is run by a Table Topics Master. There are a number of participants, usually up to 10, and, in typical Toastmasters style, a Table Topics Evaluator is there to listen to all the speakers and give feedback to all of them at the end of the session.

The Table Topics Master will prepare a series of questions on a specific topic prior to the session; then, during the session call each participant on stage to answer one of the questions. Obviously, no one knows the questions in advance, so the challenge is to answer without any preparation and speak for a minimum of 1 minute and a maximum of 2. The Timekeeper is there watching you, so you don’t want to go over time nor speak for less than a minute.

As you can imagine, this can be fun and nerve wracking at the same time. However, if you think about the situations I described at the beginning of my post, you can imagine how useful it is to be able to practice this skill on a regular basis. Becoming a great Table Topics speaker has incredible benefits in real life. You will suddenly feel more confident at work, when put on the spot by your boss or a colleague with a difficult question. You can really up your game and start inspiring the people around you. You will also feel more comfortable just having a conversation with a friend or a chat with a stranger you’ve just met.

But how can you become a great Table Topics speaker?

Here are some tips²:

  • No need to panic. This is just a game, don’t worry! All your fellow Toastmasters in the audience have been or are going to be in the same situation. They will empathise with your anxiety.
  • Buy some time. There are many ways of buying some time, like thanking the Table Topics Master or repeating the question. In the meantime, you can think of an idea for an answer.
  • When some idea pops into your head, go for it. You don’t need anything perfect. Say it and then build on what you said.
  • Try to put some structure even if the speech is impromptu. Say your idea at the beginning, elaborate and provide supporting facts in the middle part, conclude by restating the main point of your speech.
  • Tell a story from your personal experience. You don’t need any preparation to remember something happened to you and, as discussed in one of my previous posts, stories are always effective.
  • Don’t be afraid of making things up. A Table Topics speech can be funny. You don’t need to know anything or state any absolute truth. Go with the flow and have fun.
  • Avoid filler words just to buy some time if you don’t know what to say. As for any speech, that will not give a great impression.
  • Always keep an eye on the Timekeeper. During a club meeting, nothing happens if you speak for less than a minute or more than two, but if you’re competing in a Table Topics contest, you will be disqualified.
  • Last but not least, keep practicing and always put yourself forward when the Table Topics Master is looking for speakers!

What about being a great Table Topics Master?

Here are some tips for that:

  • Prepare your topic in advance. Prepare an intro and about 10 questions.
  • Make sure you provide enough context in the intro. Don’t forget to remind the participants about the purpose and benefits of Table Topics.
  • Ask your question first and then call the name of the speaker. That will create a bit of tension for all the speakers.
  • Listen carefully and try to link every answer with the following question.
  • When preparing your questions, try to be inclusive. It’s important to give any speaker, regardless of their knowledge or background, an opportunity to speak for at least a minute.
  • Finally, be creative, think outside the box and encourage the speakers to use their imagination.

On the last point, in our club we experimented with things like a role-playing game on a crime scene or people having to sell objects that don’t exist. It was a lot of fun and everyone was really engaged.

Finally, if you’re a Table Topics Evaluator, you obviously have a very difficult job.

A few tips below:

  • Listen carefully to all the speakers and take a lot of notes.
  • Make sure you identify at least one commendation and one recommendation for every speaker.
  • When delivering your evaluation you will have between 4 and 6 minutes regardless of the number of speakers. Make sure you make time to give feedback to everybody.
  • Don’t waste time summarising the speech, but focus on commendations and recommendations.
  • Remember, you’re not assessing the Table Topics Master. Just focus on the speakers.
  • Wrap up with a general and encouraging comment on all the speakers.

In conclusion, in this post, the 5th of my Toastmasters series, I’ve told you about the importance of impromptu speaking in real life and how the Table Topics session in a Toastmasters meeting can help you build that skill.

In my next post, I will write about mentorship. Watch out for it!

[1] For more information about a typical Toastmasters meeting, please read one of my previous posts here.

[2] For more tips, check the Table Topics page on Toastmasters International website.

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Andrea Marchello

Andrea Marchello

Passionate engineering manager with a strong technical background and a genuine interest in Agile leadership and Lean principles. Musician as a hobby.

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