Our terminology in Toastmasters is “Table Topics”. You may call extemporaneous speaking, off the cuff responses, thinking on your feet, or just plan talking. In my time with Toastmasters I have come to believe that it is the most critical skill that we can give our new members because we all use it and we use it every day. It is also a skill that I would consider myself an expert at in the context of Toastmasters and would like to share some of my “how to do its”.
Now first, let me separate how I deliver a table topics into a couple of categories…
I love to laugh. It is a lot of work to support a frown and a down attitude. Many times when we are offered a question that is a little silly, is so far out of your realm of understanding, or is something that requires a comical answer.
“Tell me about a time you were embarrassed.”
“What is the best way to frost a cake?”
“What is the funniest movie you have seen and why?”
The key with a fun response is no different from any other response, you have to think. The key to delivering an effective response in any situation is to think. People are scared to death of “the quiet game”. That is that mythical time between when the question is asked and when you craft your answer. Awkward silence is very uncomfortable and five seconds feels like five hours to most of us. It is though, the key to gathering your thoughts and preparing a response. When you have a “fun” question or you want to craft a “fun” response, your time in the quiet game is not to be spent on structure, organization, transitions, or rousing summary statements. In your moments of preparation you are simply searching for the ONE story that you can relay that is easy to tell, has characters, and has a definite and natural ending. The hardest part of this process is taking enough time to find that story and not allowing the uncomfortable silence to cripple you.
These are fun moments and ones that are more like interview questions. These are topics that you have an opportunity to share a belief, point of view, or message that means something to you and your being or soul.
“Who was the biggest influence on your life?”
“Define a role model.”
“How would you advise the President?”
In an interview the potential employer may ask you about how you handled certain situations or why you are right for this job. In the same way that you play the quiet game for fun topics and questions, that is that same place you need to start for pointed topics and questions. In that time you are sitting and thinking you are now searching for an emotion and not just a story. These responses have to be delivered from the heart and are not simply a matter of retelling a situation. Adding to the quiet game you must now add emotion. Even in an interview situation, there is an emotion you need to convey in order to show an employer what is truly inside you. So now we add find the emotion to think to give a pointed response to a question.
I’m a competitor. I had a great run last year in the speaking contest but along the way I also finished second in the state in Table Topics. I’ve actually won our club contest every time I have entered not to mention the several times I have won the best table topic of the day. It is something I’m pretty good at. Contest speaking is fun but it is different from a regular table topic.
“What is toastmasters?”
“What does the Superbowl have to say about our culture?”
“Which is more important listening or being heard?”
Theses are all questions that I have had in contests. Now the process to answer these is still built off the same foundation.
Now we have to add in the last piece…
**********Find a ledge**********
This is my term for looking for the place to put your foot to build your speech. In that 5-10 seconds where I am preparing for my response I am replaying the question in my head and looking for my ledge, that anchor I will tie my two minutes to. From that ledge, I then try to find 2 stories that can be told and that I have some emotions for. I know that seems like a lot to do, but that is where my mind is going. I’m also trying to find an amazing opening sentence and I’m thinking about how I may be able to tie it all together. You can do a lot in 7.7 seconds.
So the next time you are asked a question and you have to respond off the hip. Are you just going to start spewing data and opinions? Are you going to give a canned answer that is safe and uncreative? Or are you going stop, think, find a story, deliver some emotion, and find a ledge? If you do nothing more than stop and think, you are well on your way to not only winning the quiet game and table topics, but to improving your skills in speaking!