How to Write Table Topics Questions
By Michael Tanenbaum, CC, CL
Table Topics is at the same time one of the most exhilarating yet fear-inducing portions of the Toastmasters meeting. Knowing how to ask the right question to elicit an intelligent answer is a very powerful tool in a leader’s toolkit.
What makes a great Table Topics question? How does the Table Topics Master engage an audience?
In this video presentation, delivered on April 30, 2019, nine-year Toastmasters veteran Michael Tanenbaum provices tips, techniques and resources to demystify the job of the Table Topics Master and make your Table Topics session really pop.
The first thing that I ask my kids when they come home from school each day is not what they learned but if they asked a good question. This forces them to actively process what they experienced throughout the day rather than regurgitating what they were told.
Last week, when Dari Mackenzie taught us about how to skillfully answer Table Topics questions, it occurred to me that it is also important to know how to ASK a good Table Topics question. In my 9 years as a Toastmaster, I’ve led nearly 30 Table Topics sessions. I’ve gained an understanding of what works and what doesn’t, which types of questions capture an audience’s attention and which confuse them and add to their anxiety.
Madam Toastmaster, fellow members and most welcome guests: Tonight I’m going to teach you some of the techniques that I’ve learned as a Table Topics Master and provide resources to so you can do it as well. My goal is to encourage the many new members in this group to take on this role of empowering others to overcome their fear of speaking in front of this room.
The job of the Table Topics Master is challenging: He or she must ask questions that enable people to overcome their fear of public speaking. A good question puts the respondent at ease. Its purpose is not to instill fear or anxiety but to promote confidence, creativity and clarity.
Let’s jump into some do’s and don’ts.
Table Topics really begins when the weekly theme is introduced. Pick broad themes that are memorable and relatable – usually 1-2 words. Examples include “Habits”, “Food”, “Pop Music”, “Gratitude” and “Nostalgia”. This is what people will fall back on if they get stumped on their question. Longer phrases confuse people.
Most Table Topics Masters introduce their theme with a short opening monologue that describes why they chose the theme. The monologue should be brief (1-2 sentences) and to the point. Its only purpose is to provide context for the theme to help the speakers. This leaves time for the Table Topics Master to call upon as many people as possible.
Research your audience beforehand. Know how many advanced speakers there are without roles, how many new members have not been called upon recently and the general makeup of the group in terms of cultures and demographics. You do not want to ask a lot of questions about Persian New Year to people who have never heard of it. Also, sometimes, calling upon an experienced member to answer the first question is a good way to show newer members how to work with a particular theme.
What makes a good Table Topics question?
Simple, open-ended questions: “Share with us the best part of your most recent summer vacation.”
The questions themselves should be short and to the point. They should not begin with a long, drawn-out explanation that confuses rather than clarifies.
But they should also not be yes-or-no questions or questions with a one-word answer. For instance, “What is your favorite breakfast food?” This quickly walks the speaker into a dead end before the time is up. Instead ask, “Describe your favorite breakfast meal and how you would prepare it.”
The goal is to get as many members as possible to speak during the allotted time.
Non-controversial topics: Refrain from asking topical questions like, “What is your opinion on President Trump’s border wall policy?” Instead, the question could be, “Tell us how you or your family arrived in this country.”
Direct questions about politics and religion fail on two levels: they presuppose prior knowledge that certain club members may not possess; and they cause people to shut down out of fear of espousing an unpopular or very personal point-of-view.
Topics with universal appeal: Alexander Denk often asks questions about gratitude or personal growth. These are very easy to grasp and transcend cultures and languages.
Questions that are specific to the person being called upon, especially when they are from a different culture than the majority of the group: “Tell us about your favorite style of music in the country that you grew up in” puts that person in familiar territory and allows them to teach us something that we may not know.
There are many fun, creative and engaging ways to run Table Topics, beyond simply asking a series of unconnected questions. These include:
Starting with the first sentence of a story and calling up a member to complete the scenario.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
“The caterpillar hatched. He was very hungry.”
Or doing a story format where the next person continues where the previous person left off.
“It was a dark and stormy night.”
Pulling a word or an object out of a hat and speaking about it.
Let’s say the theme is “Spring Cleaning” and you pull out an old book.
Calling up two people at a time to do a point-counterpoint on a particular topic.
“Convince us that winter is the best season to go for a road trip.”
“Prove why summer is actually a better time to road trip.”
There are a number of excellent resources available for the aspiring Table Topics Master. To being with, I encourage you to look up the Table Topics Database, where you can search Table Topics questions added by members from all over the world. There is also a terrific blog post by a Toastmaster in Thailand, who breaks down the various types of Table Topics approaches. I am happy to provide these resources via email to whomever is interested.
To summarize: Make your opening remarks short. Get as many people up to speak as possible. Ask open-ended questions and aim for universal appeal. Avoid politics, religion, controversy and complexity. Beware of the do’s and don’ts when it comes to asking questions. Be creative in your format. And always remember: The goal is not to stump but to encourage.