How to Prepare for a Table Topics Compeition?


Original photo by Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash

"How do I prepare for the upcoming Table Topics competition?" was the question that popped up in my head before my first competition. After winning my second consecutive district level table topic contest, I believe I have something to share. We are going to cover the possible topics in the competition, how to practice and what to read. If you have one or two weeks before your competition, I recommend you to read 5 Tips For Your Next Table Topic Contest. If you have more time than that, please read on! If you prefer videos, please follow this link to the video version of this article. 

Table of Contents


Possible Topics in The Competition

You might ask, "How do you prepare for something unknown?". Well, a Table Topics competition's topic might not be as unknown as you think. If you refer to the Toastmasters Speech Contest Rulebook, you will find the two of the following clauses.

  1. All contestants must receive the same topic, which must be of a general nature.
  2. The topic must be of reasonable length, must not require a detailed knowledge, and must lead to an opinion or conclusion.
This gives you two very important hints. The first is that it will not be something that requires specialized knowledge. How do you choose a table topic that most people know and it will be relatable to all of your audiences regardless of their ethnicity and background? The answer is something that is shared by all of humanity. In the brilliant book titled Speaker, Leader, Champion written by 2012 World Champion of Public Speaking Ryan Avery, he listed 30 eternal virtues for inspirational speech topic selection. Amongst the 30 topics, love, perseverance, mindfulness and action are the most popular theme of speeches by World Champions of Public Speaking. At this moment, you might ask, what is this guy talking about? Ain't this article about table topics? Exactly! What I am saying is that the topic that you will get will most probably be one that is closely related to the core values of humanity and it would be something that you could turn into an inspirational impromptu speech. 

The second hint is that it must lead to an opinion or conclusion. This means that regardless of what the topic is, you will need to take a position. While the topic might be close-ended where you state if you agree to something or not and state your reasons for reaching that conclusion. For instance, "Practice what you post".  It might also be open-ended where you state an opinion about something. For example, "What makes you a better person?".

With this narrowed down possibility, you will be able to practice in a way that is more focused and directed. 

How to Practice

The best way to practice for a table topics competition is by answering table topics while emphasizing a few key areas. While you can do the following practice by recording yourself and doing self-review, for the best effect, I recommend you practice with someone. It might be a close friend or your club's vice president of education. Having a second trusted opinion matters.

Practice Understanding the Topic

After you've answered the table topic, sit down and analyze what the topic is really about. Ask yourself the following questions. 
  1. What is the core idea of the topic? 
  2. Is there any other way to interpret the topic other than the one I've used?
Remember, no matter how great a table topic respondent you are, once you've misunderstood the topic, that is the end.

Practice Sharpening Your Points

Once you've analyzed the topic, it is time to ask yourself is there any way for you to improve your answer. It could be the tweaking of your structure. It could be adding a story to show your audience what you mean. It could be cutting irrelevant parts out to make your response sharper. Please make sure that you don't bloat up your response. You only have 2 minutes and 30 seconds.

Another exercise that you could do is to try and improve other member's table topic response in your head during your club's meeting. 

The key here is to exercise your point synthesis muscle. Much like going to the gym, the more you try to sharpen your own points, the keener your points would be when you compete. 

Practice Breaking Your Usual Patterns

As you practice, you might develop certain patterns of response. This could either be a boon or a bane depending on the pattern. 

If it is an effective pattern of organizing your response into a structure that is easy to understand and digest, that is a boon. 

If it is a predictable pattern of points and/or stories that you use again and again, then it might be a bane during a competition setting. This is especially true when your audience can predict what you are going to say next. We, humans, are addicted to "newness". This is why social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok are so popular. Unless your district is very big, the possibility of the judges being the same will become higher as you move to higher levels of competitions,. While I have no doubt that the judges will be as impartial as they can be but repeating a story will dull the edge of your response. If you notice yourself repeating some story, try and find alternative stories to state your point. 

I personally believe the beauty of a great table topic response is in its ability to give an "ah-ha" moment to the audiences and repetition kills that. Please watch out for your repeating patterns.

Practice Handling Hard Topics

No matter how much you prepare, the chances of you getting caught off guard by some topic will still be there. How do you prepare for the topics that are seemingly confusing or hard to answer? 

The answer is to practice these hard topics that challenge your imagination and interpretation. For example, "What is the colour of your brain?". The wilder the topic is, the better it is. 

Please remember that when a topic is hard, the audience will be as clueless as you are. You must define what that topic means to you. With that, you can slowly guide the audience along your train of thought to reach that "ah-ha" moment. By doing this, you demystified the topic for your audiences. For example, "My brain is blue because I keep my cool during table topic sessions. If you are afraid of the table topic session, I would suggest you to breath deeply in and out so that you are cool. Once you are cool, go up and take the challenge."

What to Read

Some say that reading is nourishment for the mind and I can't agree more. I believe my reading habit contributes a lot to my ability to respond well to table topics. We can only experience so much by ourselves but through reading, we can know and experience much more. 

The first thing I would suggest is to read the top headlines of the day. A speech is a vehicle to transport your message to elicit an action or change an opinion. The best way to do that is to utilize the shared reality amongst people. Is there any national or world incident that is in the mind of almost everyone? At the moment of writing, Covid-19 is such a topic and most can relate. Reading the top headlines and understanding what is in most people's mind will help. 

The second kind of reading that I would suggest is biographies. While personal stories are the most powerful but what if the topic is about a state that you haven't achieved yet? Reading biographies of famous people will enable you to use their stories as inspirations to your aspirations. 

The third kind of book that I would recommend is motivational or self-help books. This will give you tools that you will be able to share and give as a call to action to your audiences. It will also put you in a state of positivity. How can you be inspirational when you are gloomy? There is one caveat to this. If the audience has read the book before and you dutifully regurgitate the content out, that will probably not be a good response. Mix and match points to make them yours. 

Conclusion

Some say you can't prepare for a table topics contest but I think you can prepare for a table topics contest. It's just that the preparation is slightly different. Instead of rushing to prepare during the competition season, slowly sharpen your skill through your reading and reflections. I hope my sharing did help you prepare better for your competition. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to share them with me. 

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