If you’ve ever been to a Toastmasters meeting, you’ll know what a Table Topics session is. But in case you don’t, it works like this: the facilitator gives you a prompt (usually a question, but it could be a statement or even a single word) and you, without a moment’s delay, have to give a 1-2 minute response. This exercise is intended to sharpen your impromptu speaking skills, i.e. your ability to think on your feet and speak eloquently without any preparation.
The Table Topics session is your opportunity to train for those real-life situations when you are put on the spot and expected to speak to an audience with clarity, conviction, charm and insight. But you and I both know that you’ll never give your best speech with no preparation. Sure, you can learn to cope under pressure, speak with authenticity and give a satisfactory speech. But you won’t come close to what you’re capable of unless you have adequate time to prepare.
Now, there are techniques you can use to improve your impromptu speaking skills (some of which I’ve discussed here). But allow me to let you in on a secret:
The best impromptu speeches aren’t really impromptu at all!
I’ve got news for you: any time you see someone who speaks really well in unexpected situations, it’s because those situations are not unexpected. The speaker has anticipated, prepared for, and dealt with that situation before.
Comedians expect and prepare for hecklers. They develop a stack of witty comebacks and put-downs to keep the audience in check while keeping a lighthearted tone.
Politicians brainstorm all the questions and talking points that are likely to come up and they have an extensive repertoire of facts, arguments and soundbites that they can rattle off as necessary.
Any domain expert who speaks regularly should be quite comfortable with “impromptu” speaking when it’s in their domain. The main reason being that, as I’ve said, it’s not really impromptu. They’re so well-practiced they can redirect almost any line of inquiry to align with their agenda.
Just as “all roads lead to Rome”,
for the domain expert,
all questions lead to the core message.
So, should you practice impromptu speaking? Sure. Just know that…
An ounce of preparation
a pound of improvisation.
Before I sign off, I have one plea…
Don’t put others on the spot!
It never ceases to amaze me when managers, facilitators and emcees call on someone without notice and expect them to elevate the event to a higher level. How charismatic, charming, insightful or inspiring can you really expect someone to be when you thrust a microphone at them without warning? It’s a recipe for disaster! I’m sure you’ve witnessed or experienced this all too many times. Please, don’t be the one who puts people on the spot – you’ll never get the best out of them like that. All it does is lower the quality of the meeting and make everyone uncomfortable.
The solution is simple: talk to your “victims” ahead of time – ask them if they mind saying a few words, brief them and give them a template or example to follow.
Suppose you want your guests to introduce themselves. Ask them ahead of time if they’d be comfortable doing that. Then give them a template, e.g. name; job; connection to anyone at the meeting; reason for joining; positive comment; “thank you for having me”. With prior notice, clear guidelines and sufficient preparation time, your guests will be much happier – and do much better – when you call on them to speak.