What is a Good Topic for a Table Topics Talk?



How Table Topics Masters can help Remove the Roadblocks to a Creative Impromptu Speech


Table Topics—the one to two-minute impromptu speeches at a Toastmasters meeting—offer a unique challenge to the speaker: the chance to get to the point.


They are also an excellent way to do brain-training under strict time limits. After only 30 seconds to consider the topic, the  speaker is expected to conjure up a short speech that both grabs the audience’s attention and is convincing.


What is a good topic for a Table Topics Talk?


By Anja Henningsmeyer


A good impromptu speech is like a sparkler— it shoots off a speaker’s ideas like the sparks from a flame. To have such an impact, the speaker needs an active mind, and he or she must be in top form. Of course, the topic matters, too. Ideally, it is one that ignites the speaker’s imagination, allowing him or her to sparkle.


Texts as Word Problems


Unfortunately, unwitting Table Topics speakers are confronted time and again by unwieldy, weighty topics. I have seen Table Topics Masters present political topics formulated in layers of complex phrases. It seems to me the speaker is being given a word problem rather than a sparkplug for an electrifying speech.


Consider the following: “Please describe the various arguments pro and contra to the educational proposals of the Federal Republic’s politicians to mandate the integration of methods of public speaking into the public school curriculum.” Uh… excuse me, Mr. Table Topics Master, could you please repeat that?  In those cases, speakers may already have forgotten the beginning of the topic sentence before the end of the sentence is even in sight!


In the contrary: Topics that are too simple or wrongly formulated don’t work either. For instance, if the Table Topics Master presents a question that leads to a simple “yes” or ”no” answer, or if the issue is too polarizing, speakers are put at a disadvantage. Such questions trod the well-worn path of ”either/or” rather than lead speakers into the wide-open field of multifaceted, blooming associations.


Leading Speakers into a Space for Thinking


Heinrich von Kleist, in his 1805 essay, “On the Progressive Deepening of Thought in Speaking” (“Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden”) describes how thoughts are first formed when expressed in speech. “The Appetite is Aroused by speaking,” he writes, in modification of the well-known proverb “The Appetite is Aroused by Eating.”

In order to gain an appetite for speaking, the Table Topics Master should offer an appetizing starter.


For a good impromptu speech topic, it’s sufficient to present the speaker with an object or visual clue with an outstretched hand. I also like questions like “What was the best year of your life?” or someone making the image of an autumn leaf sailing through the air after falling from the tree. These prompts are not too simple. They’re just right to activate the speaker’s thinking.



Impromptu Topics—The More Open-Ended the Better


I find it helpful if the topic is not too specific. It is better if the speaker is not expected to rifle through his or her mental filing cabinet to pull up knowledge of geographical facts or solutions to physics problems. Sometimes they are asked to opine about issues of day-to-day politics, which is too close to everyday reality and therefore unsuitable to ignite sparkling ideas. Furthermore, it may not be everybody’s field of knowledge.


My favorite Table Topics question ever was: “If you were required to wear a single color for an entire year, which color would it be and why?” The reason it is my favorite question is two-fold. On the one hand, it is very specific (“Which color would it be and why?”) and on the other hand, it engages the imagination in a fanciful sort of way (“if you were required to wear a single color for an entire year”). The speaker must imagine something outside the realm of his or her everyday thinking. The unusual or absurd evokes our imagination and fantasy more than serious, deep-end topics do.


Training to Have Fun—Experiencing Flow


For Toastmasters, impromptu speaking should be fun and enjoyable and should help us improve in the art of juggling words. For me, a lightness of being should shine through our words and gestures and reflect the joy we experience with words in their origination and presentation.


A good impromptu speech topic evokes a series of associations, which, as Heinrich von Kleist has written, leads to “the excitement of the mind” to the words just flowing out of our mouths. And while one keeps talking before the audience, the speech finds its beginning, middle and end, practically by itself. Then one experiences what psychologists call “flow.” The experience of being in the “flow” of a speech, like being carried along by the waves, is a marvelous feeling.


In an extemporaneous speech, I let myself be led upon the dance floor and allow the loose associations of my mind to dance together until, ideally, they form an airy verbal image which encircles the topic as my words sparkle and pop, like the arch of a sparkler.


Therefore, dear Table Topics Masters, I plead with you: Have the courage to choose light, spirited and open-ended topics which give people of all ages and backgrounds the chance to use their imaginations to find analogies and free-play associations. Do us all a favor: Take away the roadblocks that stand in the way of a great, creative impromptu speech.



© Anja Henningsmeyer – Translation: Michael Parker






Anja Henningsmeyer
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