Archive for the ‘For Toastmasters’ Category

Table Topics – Ten Tips

Wow! Did you notice that alliteration!!

As I write this it is time for Table Topics contests in Toastmasters. Here are some ideas for increasing your chances of success in the contests:

1. Open strong.

Walk up to the podium purposefully, stand straight. Smile confidently. Listen very carefully to the topic to be addressed. If you realize in the middle of your speech that oops! you somehow misunderstood the topic you’ll also realize that it’s likely too late to correct course effectively at this point.

2. Don’t get hung up on the best/worst

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve struggled with questions starting off ‘Tell us about the best experience/the worst experience/the most…’.

I waste valuable seconds trying to honestly come up with my best/worst/most. There is no award for absolute honesty here. No-one knows if you talk about your very best experience or your second best or your tenth best. No hand will come up to smack you if you speak about an ordinary bad experience rather than your absolute worst. Pick one quickly and get on with constructing your speech.

3. Tell a story.

You have two minutes. Don’t spend it wandering around vaguely spouting words that have something to do with the topic. Find a story that fits and give it all the power and magic and feeling that you’re capable of.

4 Make it a personal story.

A story about how you overcame a difficulty or obstacle will always capture the attention of the audience better than any amount of theorizing on the topic. Your best day? Perhaps it started out badly – you made a mistake or missed a plane but then the magic happened. With luck this magic came from your own efforts rather than sheer dumb luck, but a series of happy events culminated in your best day.

Your worst day? Again you  start out the story with your own mistakes or misunderstanding, but this time they lead to a downward spiral. However bad your day was, end your story with how you have built something positive from its wreckage. You learned a valuable lesson, or found a friend or figured out a path to doing it better next time.

5. Put passion and emotion into your story

Your audience – and especially the judges – need to feel your story as well as hearing it.  Try to come up with a story that packs an emotional punch for you. List a few of these stories ahead of time, dramatize them a little (or a lot). If a story packs an emotional punch for you, then it becomes much easier to transmit that punch to the audience.

6. Find a touch of humor.

The release of laughter – even a small chuckle – adds strength to a speech. It connects the speaker to the audience more strongly. Your connection to the audience is something the judges will be looking for.

7. Find the message within the story that will most resonate with the audience.

Do you expect your audience to be young? old? entrepreneurs? artists? Select stories that will best fit the group. This fit is important – you want the audience to sit forward and listen intently. You wouldn’t get this response if you told a retirement story to a group of young entrepreneurs.

8 Summarize the story and give it meaning

Use your two-minute story to inspire your audience. Focus a clear message for them. Show them how your experience can help them in their life. This is a form of summary and should be very short and concise but it encapsulates the value you have given your audience. A strong summary gives a strong, logical conclusion to your Table Topics speech.

9. Finish strongly

End that summary with a short punchy sentence delivered with a strong upswing in your voice. Smile again and look around confidently as if you know you have aced it. If you can, link this conclusion with your opening statement.

10. Read the judge’s guide.

This is downloadable from the Toastmasters International website. Make sure ahead of time that you know what the judges will be looking for and marking each contestant on. It only makes sense to plan your speech in a way that will most likely bring you more marks.


OK. I said ten tips, and there they are. If you’d like a bonus, it’s this. Enter the contest. It is one of the benefits of your membership in Toastmasters International  and you short change yourself if you don’t take advantage of this excellent opportunity to improve your speaking ability. Enter any and all speech contests – it will accelerate your progress.

Good luck!





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Oh, poor you! You’ve never faced the death of a loved one or suffered through abuse or a major illness. How on earth are you going to compete with widows and cancer survivors in a speech contest? It’s not a level playing field.

Relax! You’re confusing quantity with quality. It’s not the severity of the tragedy that counts, it’s your ability to refine the emotion and communicate the experience inspirationally. After a huge challenge there’s a tendency to go with an ‘all of everything’ approach.

With a lesser challenge it is easier to work on refining the emotional journey and carefully crafting the life lesson.

Challenges require that you adapt afterwards to a new reality, and often it is not a pleasant reality. You face a significant loss or possible loss. The stages of grief might have come into play. We all react to challenges differently, and our reaction can vary from time to time.

Sometimes a lesser change – moving from a house where you’ve been happy, having your kids move out (and the mixed feelings that brings), a friend moving far away – uncovers deeper emotions than you expected. You might still have felt anger or depression. You might have responded in a way that someone told you was unreasonable.

The magnitude of the challenge or someone’s cutting remark don’t matter when it comes to writing your speech. What matters is how you turned it around and adapted to your new reality. Life with ALS. Life without a spouse. Life in a cramped apartment when you’ve been used to a large house.

Your speech need not be about how BIG your adaptation was  but how creative, how significant, how it enriched others besides yourself.

The story of how you ‘got over it’  is a combination of letting go of what might have been, accepting the new reality and then making an omelette from the broken egg.

Then, lest you cast yourself in the role of hero, you encourage your audience to adapt in similar fashion.

Honesty about your feelings and reactions is vital. You can’t skim over them or pretend that none of it bothered you. You can’t tell yourself “It was just my cat that died. They’ll think I’m crazy if I let them see how upset I was over something like that.”

If you did something weird to help you over a loss, be open about it. It will help someone who also did something odd. When my old dog died my grandson gave me a large stuffed dog. That was two years ago and the stuffed dog still lies close beside my chair in the living room. Nothing weird about me.

The emotion in your speech doesn’t come from saying “I was heartbroken.” It comes from honestly felt behaviour, openly shared.

The crux of your ‘how I got over the challenge’ speech is the moment you found the courage to take the first step towards healing and adaptation. It shows others that it is possible to find that strength.

It might show them that your progress wasn’t perfect. That perhaps you slipped back to grieving or your addiction a couple of times.. That maybe you made a few mistakes. People need to know that perfection is not a requirement.

Whatever your challenge, however you managed to get over it – share it to help others along their way.



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Some people call it the Greeting, or the Protocol, or the Salutation – in a Toastmaster speech it’s that part where you say “Madam Chairperson, Fellow Toastmasters…etc. Me, I’m most used to calling it the greeting.

I used to think that was put there just to knock me off balance just when I most needed to head right into my speech without having to lose focus on an extra bit. I hoped it was unique to my club, but no. It is standard procedure especially in contests. Doing it gracefully earns approval.

It’s easier if you put it right at the beginning, but as you advance and your speech is given at a contest it is more common to put it after your first paragraph. This delayed greeting is the mark of an accomplished speaker.

Even so, sometimes even an experienced speaker clunks the greeting into a speech like a square wheel, interrupting the flow and distracting the audience. Other speakers use them quite cleverly to increase tension in a newly-started story.

A speaker needs to have a strong link between the first paragraph and the paragraph that follows the greeting. If it’s a story, get right into the action  by having the beautiful maiden tied up on the railway line with the coal train bearing down. If that’s too 20th century then put yourself in an untenable position, pause for the greeting then launch into saving yourself for the next seven minutes.

In classic terms you get your call to adventure or self improvement, you do the greeting. then you have the adventure and find your better self. You have your first paragraph as your set-up, aligning the mind of each person in the audience just the way you want it. Then you do the greeting to give them time to absorb your set up, then you’re good to go with the meat of the message.

If you can choose words that layer your message it will pack an even greater punch. Think of it as a two-level bridge over a river, a bridge carrying both a road and a railway. The set-up to your tale is one level. The second level is a word, a phrase, an image that occurs in both the opening paragraph and again right after the greeting. Like this:

“I dreamed of walking barefoot on the sandy beaches of Hawaii….


But it was not me who was barefoot and the sand was not on the beach…”

Do you have ideas for getting over the greeting gracefully or effectively? I’d like to hear them.

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Pro and Con

Let’s say you’re planning a speech that covers two sides of a controversial topic. I’ll choose one that shouldn’t get too many people hot under the collar.

‘Buses are better than trains.’

Of course your topic will be much less blah – you’ll choose it to get your audience aroused and possibly change their opinion. You’d like them to change their opinion so it becomes the same as yours which, naturally, is the right one.

You plan to research this, come up with several points for each side for the body of your speech, then make a rationally thought out concluding statement that buses are better than trains (or vice versa).

But how do you present all this without sounding dull and pedantic and standing stiffly at the podium?

You start with an opening that connects you with your audience – a ‘you’ question such as “When was the last time you rode the bus?” Or an ‘imagine’ question – “Imagine riding a train that was clean and on time”.

As you transition into the body of your speech you remember to present one side of the issue from one side of the stage, and the other side of the issue from the opposite side of the stage. You move between the two sides so the audience has visual clarity as well as auditory clarity. If you make a balanced statement you stand in the middle.

(Remember to illustrate all your points with a story or an anecdote.)

You don’t have to march back and forth, and your audience may not even notice what you’re doing. It’s called subliminal learning.

When you come to wrap up the speech you will make your strong concluding statement at centre stage. “So you can see that in this region, buses are a much better transportation option than trains.” Again it is a ‘you’ statement that connects the issue to the audience.

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As you work through the competent communicator manual, covering all the basics of making a speech, you come to the final two speeches, Project #9 Persuade with Power and Project #10 Inspire Your Audience. Read through all the manual has to say about motivational speaking and inspirational speaking as you start to prepare your international contest speech.

Motivational and inspirational speeches are the ones that win contests. Important components are:

– humor

– emotion

– stories or anecdotes

– a strong personal element – this is your story. It is about you. It’s about how you overcame a tragedy or difficulty

Your speech will have is a message that translates to everyone (well, pretty much everyone) in the audience. It motivates them to think and/or act differently. This message may be implicit or it may be revealed in an overt call to action.

The key lies in your vivid images and your connection with the audience. It’s an unfair world this world of speech making. Some of us have overcome cancer or the death of a beloved. Others of us are stuck with lesser triumphs like losing a lot of weight for having shingles.

It’s all in how you tell the story, how you pull the audience into your struggles and, most importantly, how you translate your learning and growth into a motivational or inspirational challenge to your audience.

Practice telling your story without self-pity or blame. What tiny, telling detail will evoke the raw emotion of the moment? What silly, almost irrelevant, aside will show that your sense of humor still alive and well.

Your role as a motivational or inspirational speaker is to show the audience the way. It’s your opportunity to offer them a small glimmer of light for their path. It might not mean a great deal to each person today, but it a seed planted in their mind, ready there should they need it.

Winning a contest is good. I wish you all success with that. But crafting a speech that translates your experience into lightening the load for someone else is even better. That is true success

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It happened again on Tuesday. The speaker was talking about an interesting experience – this one was a ride in a hot air balloon – and he was fully halfway through his allotted speech time before he actually mentioned getting into the balloon.

The flight was delayed, the flight location was moved and the truck they rode in to the new take-off point looked like this. The balloon was unpacked and inflated. Finally they had a quick balloon ride and they landed. End of speech.

It reminded me of an earlier speech by Toastmaster who had visited a remote indigenous village. It had been a moving, emotional experience for him. He had told us a bit about it ahead of time and we were all eager to hear the details. What had caused him to react so strongly?

We never did find out because all 7 minutes and 30 seconds was taken up getting to the village. The timer started clapping him down just as he described the van parking on the muddy main street.

When you’re speaking about an event, start with the event. We don’t care what you had for breakfast or that your girlfriend was late. If it’s a balloon ride we want to get as close as we can to the balloon ride.

The speech starts as the balloon inflates or as it rises into the air. Then you have about six minutes to bring the meat of the event to life and share the experience itself before you land and wrap up.

Similarly, the indigenous village experience starts with the village street. You spend no speech time getting there.

The basic problem is a lack of planning.  Start by making a list of what you feel is important to share about your experience. Use the five senses – what you saw, heard, tasted, felt, smelled. Think of the sequence of events. List your reactions to different points in the narrative. Were there any interesting or humorous or significant events that you want to be sure to include?

Then go through those lists and select what is most important to share with the group. Arrange your facts and details in a logical sequence and add opening and closing statements.

Now you’ve got a well planned speech that helps your audience understand what you’re trying to convey. Give them all the excitement, the fun the significance of your experience – not seven and a half minutes of getting there.

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You can improve almost any speech by adding a touch of humor. If you’re setting off to present a funny speech, then the more humor the better. But even quite a serious speech can benefit from a quick poke to the funny bone.

For one thing this humor is unexpected and therefore funnier because of the element of surprise. Also it helps keep people awake and paying attention. Who knows when the speaker might give us a break from all that useful information and give us the sudden pleasure of a laugh or a smile. Wouldn’t want to miss that!

Comedians have a whole list of techniques for humor – making the ordinary funny. One of these is exaggeration. A couple of suggestions:

  • really exaggerate. Big time, not just a little bit
  • find a standard of comparison, the more bizarre the better.

So, let’s take a couple of ordinary statements and ramp them up;

– When I go to the grocery store I often buy more than I intended

– Traffic is very heavy between my house and my mother’s house

– My aunt carries a large purse and it is always full of stuff.

I went to the grocery store today for bread and milk. I came home with bread, milk, a case of mac & cheese, a 10 pound bag of pecans, a gallon can of tomato juice, and enough burger patties to feed an army. Did I mention that I live alone?

Now the live alone part may or may not be true – it just adds the finishing touch.

Traffic is so heavy between my house and my mother’s – it’s about five miles, but I pack a lunch to eat in the car.

My aunt’s purse is the size of Texas. I tried to pick it up one day, dislocated my shoulder and dropped it. Out felt all the usual stuff plus a leash for her dog (she doesn’t have a dog), gardening clippers, a Christmas tree ornament, seasickness pills (she lives in Ohio) and some old-fashioned heavy binoculars. When I asked her, she just said,

“Well, you never know…”

To add that light touch to your next speech try a few unexpected exaggerations. It’s a technique many comedians use.


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