Oh, Those Table Topics! Extemporaneous Speaking
Table Topics threatens our composure more acutely than any other Toastmasters activity.
Table Topics helps us sharpen our skills at organizing and delivering a short talk without preparation. Developing these skills takes practice. The technique I'll suggest here is only one among many, but it works wonders for me.
It probably comes as no surprise that Table Topics threatens our composure more acutely than any other Toastmasters activity. I remember stammering my way through many of these impromptu speech assignments. I have seen others so shaken by the prospect they could only mutter "I-I-I ... " and sit down, red-faced. Many struggle along, going nowhere, but delighting the Ah Counter and Grammarian with innumerable "and-ahs" and various grammatical faux pas.
Those of us not gifted with total aplomb make the situation worse by trying to tackle difficult topics head on. We feel pressured, so we start talking, only to come up short a moment later by the realization that we don't know where we're going. Mental block sets in, preventing the associations needed to continue.
There is a better way: A technique that will help you learn how to compose your thoughts so that when the spotlight is on you in real life, you'll be ready. Here's what to do:
Temporarily forget the topic. That's right, forget it and start talking about anything you are familiar with, some-thing so familiar that the words come easily. Use that for an opening (beginning, as always, with a crowd teaser). Once your words are slipping out, you will be more relaxed and your mind can do what it does best: form associations. Take advantage of those associations to bring your talk back around to the topic.
It works like magic, even when - as is the usual case - the subject you begin with is not directly related to the topic. Another bonus is that your audience does not at first connect the opening with the topic, almost guaranteeing a higher level of curiosity and interest.
Let me give you a personal instance. Not long ago I was given the topic: "My Favorite School Teacher." I began my talk with a challenging question: "Guess what I did today?" I then went on to tell about how I had gone out jogging that day even though the temperature, with the wind chill factor, was below 10 degrees. My opening got my audience's attention, both because of the challenging question and because they were expecting something quiet different. I talked about how I had bundled up against the cold, even slipping on a ski mask.
When I began, I didn't know how I would bring my talk back around to the topic; I was simply counting on associations to help me out. Soon enough, the cold temperature I was talking about served to remind me of a dramatic demonstration my high school physics teacher had per-formed - a demonstration to show the effects of super cold temperatures. This provided a ready-made transition between my opening and the topic.
In the body of my speech, I went on to talk about this excellent teacher who made learning a pleasure by bringing physical principles to life through demonstration. My talk won Best Table Topic.
One caveat: Because these associations are not always obvious, it takes a little practice to recognize usable ones. But given a little encouragement, this technique will work for you. And in the wider world, your "off-the-cuff' responses will improve dramatically.
Here's a trick: Plan what you will open your talk with before the Topicsmaster calls on you. You might even think of several possible openings. That way, when it's your turn, you can choose an opening that seems most likely to hold strong associations to the topic.
One final point: Sometimes, Table Topics questions are overly complex and not easily understood, particularly by someone experiencing stage fright. Realize this and give yourself a break. Have the Table Topicsmaster repeat the topic while you listen carefully for the essential question, ignoring everything else. Repeat the essential question out loud to your audience to help fix it in your mind. Then if you are still shaky, proceed with your prepared opening as indicated above.
This technique - creating associations even under stress - will amaze and delight your audience, who will feel they are truly in the presence of a master. Of course, they don't have to know what your secret is unless you tell them.
Jack Cauley is a Toastmaster in California.