Sunday, June 22, 2014

Need Impromptu Speaking Practice? Try Toastmasters Table Topics (Bonus Topic Idea: "Why Did You Get That Tattoo?")

I recently took over the role of Table Topics Master at our Nyon Toastmasters Club, a role I had not taken before (Note: If you don't know about Toastmasters, I would highly recommend this wonderful  learning community focused entirely on public speaking.)

Table Topics are a regular feature of our Club, and I think of all Toastmasters Clubs. They give people the opportunity to stand up and deliver a 1-2 minute speech, completely impromptu, about some topic that they are given on the spot. These are in contrast to the prepared speeches at each Toastmaster meeting (which are longer, prepared in advance of the meeting and practiced, practiced, practiced.)

I wanted my Table Topics to give people the opportunity to tell a good story, and when I looked around, in early June, I noticed a lot of body art being displayed with the nice weather. So I decided to call my Table Topics:


When you see a really unusual tattoo, you know there must be a good story behind it. So I took 8 slips of paper and on each one of them I drew a tattoo (in some cases I made it on PowerPoint, or I typed it out if it was words/numbers, or I found a similar image on the internet).  Then I wrote on what part of the body the tattoo was positioned. I folded up the slips of paper and put them in an envelope. On the night I asked the volunteers to select a piece of paper and hand it to me, so I could describe the tattoo, where it was placed and ask them in a rather loud and demanding way, "Why Did You Get That Tattoo?" (of course you can vary the tone of your voice depending on the tattoo - you can sound like your mother or an envious friend.)

Here are the "tattoos" that I used (not all of them were selected - we had time for the first four):

  1. 55⁰01'N 82⁰56'E - The map coordinates of Novosibirsk are tattooed on your left foot - Why did you get that tattoo??
  2. A small Chinese character that looks nice but translates into "Noodles" on the nape of your neck
  3. "Jane Forever" tattooed across your back
  4. An outline of the State of Texas on your calf  (pick any state/country)
  5. "Only Judy Knows" tattooed on your right bicep 
  6. Lampyridae (the scientific name of a firefly) on your ankle
  7. A bar code on your lower back 
  8. Half a Tweety Bird on your thigh - Why did you get that tattoo??

You can really use your imagination on this as the Table Topics Master, and obviously it demands the same on the part of the speech makers!

We had some wonderful stories about a well-lubricated project site visit in wintery Siberia, indelible life-changing field work with Jane Goodall, some translation difficulties in a tattoo parlour in Shanghai, and a Dallas University Professor who really made a lasting impression on his student.  The Table Topic speakers were so creative and rather courageous I would say - congratulations to the four Toastmasters women who jumped at this opportunity before we ran out of time.

Delivering good Table Topics is also one of my personal learning edges. I feel comfortable (appropriately nervous of course) preparing and giving a 5-6 minute prepared Toastmasters speech. But the idea of having to talk off the cuff, sensibly, about a topic I am given 2 seconds before is still something that makes my brain race, legs shake and voice quiver. And although I thought about it in advance, I am still not sure how I would justify that half a Tweety Bird tattooed on my thigh.

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