Table Topics

Monday, February 27, 2012

On Saturday I participated in a Table Topics contest. I belong to Toastmasters International, and Table Topics is its way of teaching members to think on our feet. As a regular part of each meeting, the designated Table Topics Master calls up members (and sometimes guests) and poses a question that the member hasn't seen before. The speaker gets only a few seconds to think before starting to talk.

Earlier this month I won my club contest. Then Saturday I competed against the top two contestants from each of the area's three clubs.

At regular club meetings, speakers often receive different questions. For the contest, everyone received the same question. To keep anyone from having an unfair advantage, all contestants left the room and were called back one at a time.

While we were awaiting our turns on Saturday, one of the contestants wondered aloud whether he was required to answer the question asked. During regular meetings some clubs allow the speaker to ignore the question and talk about a different topic, but this was a contest.

That's when we got into a discussion about the purpose of Table Topics. We all agreed that it helps us with extemporaneous speaking, but we didn't agree on whether that means we should stick with the topic in the question. One reason I never became a trial lawyer is because I'm not good at thinking on my feet, so that's a skill I want to learn. But how will I learn it if I can change the subject whenever I want?

The person who raised the issue held a different view, contending that learning to speak without notes or advance preparation doesn't require you to answer the question asked. And I agree with him to some extent. But if you can choose a topic you are comfortable with whenever you don't like the one you are given, does that really teach you to think on your feet?

At the club level, the contest question was, "Which cartoon character is most like you?" (or something along those lines). Mickey Mouse immediately popped into my head, but I discarded him because I didn't see the parallels. So I tried to think of a different character and quickly rejected the Disney heroines that flew through my mind. In desperation, I returned to Mickey Mouse and started talking while I was still thinking.

The essence of my speech was that Mickey Mouse began as an undeveloped character and matured over time, and I hoped that was true of me, too. I also mentioned that Mickey was an ordinary person rather than a superhero, and so am I. By the time I finished, I was quite satisfied with my answer.

On Saturday, the contest question was, "If you had unlimited funds, where would you travel?" A much easier question for me, especially since several of us had been talking about the Great Wall of China right before the contest began. So I started by saying I had an unfair advantage and explaining why. Again, I was satisfied with my performance. But I learned more from the harder question at the club level.

When the person who had wondered if he could change the question was called in, he answered the one that was asked, and he took second place. I took first, but that was just a bonus.

Because I'm in it to learn rather than to win.

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