Learn How To Speak Off the Cuff With Toastmasters


Among the many aspects of public speaking that give people anxiety, probably none is as difficult as speaking off the cuff. Giving a speech without any preparation is one of the most nerve wracking experiences a newbie public speaker can have. Luckily there are plenty of impromptu speaking exercises out there that let you hone your speech skills.

Toastmasters is an excellent way to overcome your fear of public speaking in a cost-effective way. Besides prepared speeches, evaluations, and leadership skills, most meetings feature an impromptu speaking portion called Table Topics. In this section, a member taking the role of Table Topics Master picks out audience members to answer questions with no preparation. Impromptu speakers are given one to two minutes to think on their feet and answer the question in front of everybody. It’s an exciting, but also frequently scary part of a Toastmasters meeting. Yet it can still be an excellent way to learn speaking off the cuff. The following are some tips for both Table Topics Speakers and Masters for improving their impromptu speaking and asking skills.

Tips for Speakers

Stop and Think

When you’re asked an impromptu question at a Toastmasters meeting, there’s no need to respond right away. You don’t want to stand there frozen, of course, but giving yourself a second or two to pause and think about how to answer goes a long way. Not being in a rush to speak will also affect your stage presence and body language - a calm appearance makes you seem much less nervous to the audience.

Organize Your Speech

Organizing your speech is an important part of public speaking that you learn early on - it’s one of the earlier projects in the Toastmasters Competent Communication manual, for example. While you obviously don’t have any time to prepare a Table Topics speech, keeping a basic speech structure in the back of your mind can do wonders. A simple Intro - Point 1, Point 2, Point 3, Closing structure helps keep your impromptu speech focused, and makes you ramble less.


Don’t Know the Answer? Don’t Worry!

At your Toastmasters meeting, if you find yourself answering a Table Topics question that you know absolutely nothing about, don’t panic. A great technique, when all else fails, is to take the question and provide an interesting tangent instead. If the Table Topics Master asks a question about traveling overseas during your childhood, but you’ve never actually traveled overseas, give a speech about countries you’d like to visit instead. Going completely off topic, however, isn’t an effective way to answer and makes it seem like you don’t understand the question, or weren’t paying attention.

Tips for Table Topics Masters

Keep it Simple

Like most things in life, a simple approach tends to be best when asking impromptu questions. In Toastmasters, using topics that are too complicated, sensitive, or difficult will potentially embarrass volunteers, especially first timers.  That’s not to say that you should go for bland questions that are too easy, just make sure it’s a topic everyone knows and can relate to, and has the potential to answer. Visual aids  for your questions are also a great way to make things more creative and easy to understand.

Try New Ideas

That said, don’t be afraid to be a little daring when it comes to making Table Topics questions. A Toastmasters impromptu speaking section doesn’t have to consist of easy, everyday questions like “What’s your favorite color, and why?”. Spicing things up a bit is fine - as long as it’s something everyone in the audience can potentially answer. I’ve personally used things like TV shows, movies, and local culture for inspiration for Table Topics ideas. Another great way to shake things up is to do a Role Playing Table Topics - where you have two speakers speaking off the cuff instead of one, and they play off each other in a made up scenario.


Keep it Focused

The best sessions in TM always focus on a common theme. Take one idea and run with it for your Table Topics questions. Asking questions that are too different from each other seems unorganized and sloppy. Having a common topic will also let the audience think about the questions before answering, and try to anticipate what’s next more easily.

Ask the question BEFORE picking a volunteer

Impromptu speaking is stressful enough as it is - waiting until a volunteer is on the stage before asking the question just makes things worse. Asking the question before picking someone in the audience helps give people a bit of time to think - one of the better impromptu speaking skills you can learn. You’re also more likely to get a volunteer if people know what to expect.

Make it fun!

Speaking off the cuff can be scary, but Table Topics has the potential to be the funniest part of a Toastmasters meeting. Asking questions that are a little silly - but still easy to answer and relevant to the local culture and audience - helps lighten up the mood a great deal, and by extension improves the rest of the meeting. Especially if your club has Table Topics before the prepared speaking session - humorous questions serve as a great warm up for the rest of the meeting.

Learning impromptu speaking can be one of the most difficult part of a Toastmasters meeting, but it doesn’t need to be. With a few simple tips and the right attitude, speaking off the cuff with Table Topics can be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of a TM meeting.

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