Posts Tagged ‘Table Topics’

The club’s Table Topics contest was over and someone asked me how they could have done better.

My answer: Put a story or anecdote into your speech to brighten it up and keep the audience listening.

Blank look. “But where do I find anecdotes?”

It was a learning moment for me. Some people see anecdotes everywhere; others never notice them. They just don’t see the story. They don’t see that there is the potential for story if only they poked around a bit and supplied some imagination

It’s like some people have an ear for music; others can’t help singing flat. Some people know immediately which color will look attractive on them and others go out in a mixture of orange and purple.

Some people are sensitive to the story, or even the potential for story, while for others it’s just another boring day.

I think it was Gretchen O’Donnell who said “Some people go for a driver’s license and all they get is a driver’s license. Others come away with a driver’s license and an anecdote.”

So are those with a tin ear for story doomed forever? I think you can start to exercise that sensitivity as if it were a muscle. Practice looking for story. Set a goal. ‘Today I will find and record at least one anecdote.’

Where will you find it? Ask questions. Listen (even overhear odd snippets of conversation and build on what might be the story behind those words). Observe behavior – movement, dress, reactions, the way people relate to each other.

Become sensitive to speech patterns, especially if they don’t quite fit the situation – someone asks angrily for a cup of coffee, someone is very upset when there are no bananas in the produce section. If you can discover the reason, great. If not, wonder what could be the story.

Watch relationships and interactions – mom and child, boyfriend/girlfriend, customer/sales clerk. Learn to feel when it’s pretty routine or when words or movements are a bit ‘off’.  Watch for a clue to the story behind this.

Ask questions, or make politely questioning observations . One day I saw a woman wearing a brightly colored knitted hat – not what most shoppers in the mall were wearing. I stopped and admired it and she told me a delightful story about her grandmother’s knitting. Bingo! Not only did I enjoy a pleasant chat with a stranger but I came away with an anecdote.

When you find anecdotes put them into your anecdote bank in a notebook or computer. When you get plenty, sort them in whatever way makes sense to you. Take time to build a few into longer stories (I can describe – from imagination – the  hat lady’s grandma and her house, her arthritic hands and her crotchety husband.)

Your anecdote bank is your secure investment in brighter speeches of all kinds.

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We had a visitor at our club today – a woman from China, not accustomed to speaking in public, nor fluent in English. When she was asked to take part in Table Topics she did not even understand the question.

“Do you believe that a smile is contagious? Why or why not?”

The word  ‘contagious’  stumped her.

“Infectious” clarified the Table Topics master, who is also a new member from China.


She stood there, a slight, uncertain figure, trying to gather her thoughts and translate them into English. We were all pulling for her. Hesitantly she began:

“We were at the airport, at the customer…what’s the word?”

“Customer service counter?” suggested the Table Topics master.

“Yes, the customer service counter. We had two sets of luggage. One set needed to go just to Vancouver, one set needed to go to all the way to Beijing. The man behind the counter did not want to do that. He said it could not be done. He frowned a lot, he sounded cross…”

He story continued, how she had begged him to do it. How she had smiled at him as she asked again.

And he did it. He organized the luggage to go, half to Vancouver, the other half  from there on to Beijing.

She had  smiled when she thanked him too.

It was her smile, she said, that made the difference, that allowed the arrangement to take place.

And when she smiled at us, the audience, we understood how her smile could make this difference.

What a lesson from a visitor! She told a story! How many of us struggle through Table Topics stringing ideas and thoughts together to try to fill up the time. New and scared, in an unfamiliar language, our visitor came up with a story. A simple, relevant story.

It worked brilliantly. I sat there, feeling proud for her, wishing I would remember that lesson every time.

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It’s one thing to enter a club contest and feel terrific when you find you won. Of course you’re happy! You get  congratulations and you feel wonderful.

Then you wake up next morning and the other shoe drops. You remember you have to compete in the Area contest. These are probably strangers, not the nice people from your own club. You’ve heard stories about one of them being almost a professional speaker. Another one has been a Toastmaster for nearly twenty years. What is your little bit of experience compared to that?

This all goes under the heading of ‘negative thinking’. If you go into the contest with a mind set like that you reduce your chances of winning. Turn it around. You’ve beaten the other good speakers in your club. You have freshness on your side. Remember how you felt as you were acing your club speech – you were in the zone, it felt terrific, it was fun.

That’s the mind set you need to re-create for the Area contest. Go for it!

You’d like some tips?

Go on to the stage, head up, looking confident and smiling.

Grab the audience’s attention with a great opening.

Keep your eyes on the audience and give the best eye contact you can.

Wind up with a strong closing.

For Table Topics

Ahead of time, bone up on current events locally

Look as if the question is just perfect for you, and you can’t wait to answer it

Answer the question! This is no time to wander off.

If it’s an ‘either/or’ question try to give the pros and cons of each

Try to put in a dash of humor and a tug to the emotions

For Humorous Speech

Practice in front of at least one friend. If they are uncertain about some part or didn’t quite ‘get’ it, work on it until they are satisfied.

Hone the funny parts till they are much funnier.

Weed out or reduce long explanations that don’t add to the humor.

Try to fit stronger body language to the humorous parts.

Work on your pauses. People need time to laugh. Leave yourself a good margin of ‘laughter time’ so you don’t have to worry about time disqualification.

Good luck!


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