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Tune Up Your Table Topics

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"Please don't call on me." How often have you thought this plea or heard it muttered by a fellow club member? Why do we have this inordinate fear of standing up and speaking before a group of friends that is probably the most tolerant audience in the world?

I believe it is because we want each and every Table Topics response to be perfect. We want it to be a memorable reply that perfectly (and humorously, in most cases) addresses the topic we have been presented.

Well, I have news for you! It isn't going to happen - at least not every time you get called on. Maybe we should change our expectations for Table Topics. Instead of going for a perfect response we should strive for perfect learning.

To understand how this change in perspective works, we must understand the purpose for Table Topics. Most experienced Toastmasters would agree that Table Topics is a process to help you:

Looking at Table Topics as an important exercise in improving our communication skills, and nothing more, will help us use this exercise more productively. Here are seven tools to do just that:

1.  No judgments - Avoid making judgments about your presentation in advance. We are often prone to censoring ourselves and that inhibits our performance. Thinking about how our response will be received as we walk to the front of the room instead of creating a mini-speech is not a productive use of our time. When called on for Table Topics, just leave the judgments at your seat and use the time to create a brief speech based on the topic you have been presented. Then go up and deliver. You don't have to be perfect and time you deliver a topic. You just have to learn and grow.

2.  No "Tee Ups" - Frequently when called on to deliver an impromptu speech, we start our presentation with what is called a "Tee Up." This is just like the golfer placing the ball on the tee for the first shot of the hole. A "Tee Up" in Table Topics could be any of " the following...

Just as it is appropriate to place the ball on a tee at the tee box, there are occasions in speaking where it is appropriate to preface your remarks with a qualifying comment. However, I recommend that you avoid them at all costs in Table Topics. Don't say anything that lowers the audience's expectation. It weakens your connection with them and reduces the impact of your presentation.

Related to the "Tee Up" is trying to prepare in advance for a Table Topic by coming up with a generic response, usually an attempt at humor. This approach will definitely impede your learning and will probably not help you win a ribbon. Don't do it! Just address the topic and learn from your response.

3.  Build your knowledge base - The more subjects you are familiar with, the easier it will be for you to deliver a short impromptu speech on one of them. If you are not interested in the world, the world is not going to be interested in you. Think about that. No matter if it is in cocktail conversation or in dealing with people in your job, the more you know about what is going on in the world, the more effective and interesting you will be. This doesn't mean that you should try to be an expert on all subjects. At least have enough knowledge about a variety of topics to ask intelligent questions about them.

4.  Use the topic as a basis for a mini-speech. Too often we make the Table Topics session a question-and-answer period. The Topicsmaster asks the question and we answer it. Instead, use the topic as the basis for creating a mini-speech. While we may not know the exact answer to the question asked in the topic, we usually have enough information, thoughts, feelings or opinions to develop a one-and-a-half minute speech. Work on developing an opening, body and conclusion for your presentation.

5.  Connect with the audience. If we simply respond to the topic presented, we are very likely to look primarily at the Topicsmaster when responding. By concentrating on connecting with the audience, we are more likely to mold our response into a mini-speech. Look people in the eye. Work on selling an idea to the audience!

6.  Emphasize your physical presentation. Make sure your whole being is delivering your Table Topic. If we focus on just answering the question, we are more likely to stand in one place and deliver in monotone with no gestures or energy. If we focus on giving a mini-speech, we are more likely to deliver it with more energy and enthusiasm. Strive to put energy into your delivery.

7.  Have fun! Just relax and enjoy yourself. What is the worst thing that is going to happen if you don't deliver your Table Topic well? You will not suffer any physical harm. It won't cost you anything - except maybe for those ahs and the fine for not using the word of the day. The audience you are speaking to is in the same boat as you are. They are not likely to sink that boat. The worst thing that can happen is that you don't win the ribbon for best Table Topic of the day. Big deal!

The best thing that can happen is that you climb one more rung up your ladder to effective communication. Stretch! Dare to fall on you face! This is the place to try those things you wonder if you can do. How do you think I found out I shouldn't sing in my presentations?

The purpose of Table Topics in the club environment is to improve rapid access to the information contained in your memory and use it to create an impromptu two-minute speech. Making up a response is fine because it helps break down the barriers to developing a response. While it is permissible to wander from the truth in your Table Topics response, you should avoid doing so in communications outside the club.

Use these Table Topics tools and you will benefit by becoming a more effective communicator. This will help you become more confident in any situation and more successful in your career. You will also benefit by connecting more deeply with fellow club members and having some fun along the way.

By Jack_Kontola

How Do You Build Your Knowledge Base?

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