How to Run Table Topics

Dec 13

Table Topics: when anyone can have the chance to speak impromptu for 1-2 minutes. It’s fun, it prepares you for job interviews, it helps you learn to give speeches with less preparation and less reliance on scripts, and did I mention it’s fun?

(Why are they called “Table Topics” anyway? What kind of name is that?)

Table Topics can be the most creative, fun part of the meeting. You generally have a great deal of flexibility to give off-the-wall topics.

(Vice Presidents of Education, please schedule Table Topics after prepared speeches!)

What do I do now? If you are topicsmaster for an upcoming meeting, the first thing you should do is to learn what the meeting theme is. Hopefully your Toastmaster of the Day has come up with a fun meeting theme far enough in advance for people with meeting roles—like you—to incorporate it into what you do. If your meeting does have a theme, you should try to make the topics relevant to the theme… but that doesn’t mean you can’t interpret it creatively!

How many table topics should I prepare? Too many! You never know when some people won’t show up and the Toastmaster of the Day asks you to run more topics than you planned. It’s best to ask someone in your club; some commonly only run three table topics in a meeting, others usually have time for six, others are determined to make everyone do a topic. I find eight to be a good rule of thumb for most clubs, but you can also choose to prepare as many as you are sure of using and then have a backup method (like table topics cards) if you need more. In general, you want plenty of extras, just in case.

(Sergeant at Arms, please make sure your club has table topics on hand in their supplies, in case you need a last-minute replacement for your topicsmaster. You can order TableTalk cards or the Chat Pack from the Toastmasters International store, or feel free to use anything else that can give an extensive selection of topics quickly.)

What sort of Table Topics can I do? Try to have all your topics relate to the meeting theme, or at least be on a consistent theme of your own choosing. There are many many approaches, ranging from simple questions to completely off the wall approaches. Read more Table Topics ideas.

A note of caution: newer speakers may be confused by some of the more creative approaches to Table Topics. Also—particularly for novice speakers—try to keep your question/topic short. It’s hard enough for the speaker to try to think of what to say, while also keeping a long, rambling question in their head.

We’re starting the Table Topics segment. What do I do? before you start giving out topics, it’s a good idea to explain how this works. You want to get people excited about the fun of table topics. You want to make sure they understand that the goal is to speak for 1-2 minutes, and they are not eligible for Best Table Topics speaker if they speak for less than 1 minute or longer than 2 minutes and 30 seconds. You will call on them. They will come up and shake your hand. You will give them the topic. They will deliver a response to the audience, preferably on topic, but they can say anything as long as they speak for the appointed time. After they finish, they should wait for you to come up and shake their hand before they return to their seat. This is mainly important when you have people in the meeting who have never participated in Table Topics before. If everyone is experienced, you might abbreviate or skip the introduction, but it can be very useful to get guests interested and feeling less unsure about what would be expected of them.

Wait, those times don’t sound right… I’ve ran into some clubs that are a little confused about this. Toastmasters International Table Topics have a time range of 1-2 minutes each. Green light at 1 minute. Yellow light at 1 minute, 30 seconds. Red light at 2 minutes. If your club wants to practice 2-3 or 5-7 minute impromptu speeches, that’s great, but those aren’t Table Topics.

The disqualification times may be confusing. In every other form of speech, you get 30 seconds of leeway before and after the minimum and maximum speaking times, respectively. So in a 2-3 minute evaluation, you must speak somewhere between 1 minute, 30 seconds and 3 minutes, 30 seconds to qualify. Table Topics are the exception. Since they are so short, there is no grace time before the minimum time. You must make it to at least the green light to qualify, but you do still have 30 seconds after the red light comes on before you would be disqualified, and thus ineligible for the voting for Best Table Topics Speaker.

Do I call on people or ask for volunteers? The method recommended by Toastmasters International is to call on people. This avoids awkward silences where nobody volunteers, makes sure nobody can avoid it meeting after meeting after meeting, and keeps everyone on the edge of their seats, listening and thinking but still unprepared. You can certainly call for volunteers if you would rather, however.

Do I give the topic before or after I call on someone? TI recommends giving the topic first. Then everyone is in suspense. They’re thinking of how they would answer it if they are called on, so the entire room is practicing. If you are using volunteers instead of calling on people, then there are pros and cons: you might get an enthusiatic volunteer for a specific topic, but it’s truer to impromptu speaking if they don’t know what they’re in for.

Can guests answer a topic? Sure! This is a wonderful way to get guests engaged in the club and give them a taste of the Toastmasters experience. However, they may be uncomfortable, and you don’t want to pressure them too much. It’s best if you can talk to them before the meeting, explaining what Table Topics are, how they work and seeing if the person is willing to be called on. Do make sure to catch their name. If you weren’t able to do that, you can still call on them, but I suggest a specific order of events:

  1. Make sure you’ve explained to the room how to answer Table Topics and what the timing signals mean.
  2. Don’t give the first topics to guests. Let them see other people do it first.
  3. Give the topic
  4. Ask the guest, don’t just call on her directly. “Mary, we’d love to have you come up here and answer this topic, but you don’t have to. Would you like to try?”
  5. If the guest declines, reassure them that it is fine and they could try another day, when they feel more ready. Then repeat the topic and call on someone else
  6. If the guest accepts, give them a brief reminder that the goal is to just keep talking, preferably until they see the green light, and to shake your hand before they sit down again. Repeat the topic and let them answer.

Who can I call on to answer a Table Topic? Technically, anyone in the room, regardless of membership status or roles they have, but there are some caveats. I recommend you start with at least one experienced person (someone who has been a Table Topics speaker at least a few times), then work on guests and people who no meeting role, then people with simple meeting roles, only involving people with significant speaking time in the meeting if there is sufficient time.

Is it true I can’t call on the TMOTD/GE/etc? Not exactly. Some people almost make it sound like a hard and fast rule that you shouldn’t call on people with “major meeting roles.” This isn’t a rule, you aren’t strictly prohibited from it… but in the interests of fairness, you should try to call on people for Table Topics who will have little chance to speak in the meeting otherwise. If someone gave a 5-7 minute speech, why call on them to give a Table Topic when the ah counter is sitting and waiting with little opportunity to talk the entire meeting? If there is sufficient time, then certainly call on everyone.

Can I give the same question to multiple people? Generally, no. The whole point of impromptu speaking is that people don’t know what they will be asked until it is time for them to speak. If multiple people are given the same question, that gives the later respondents an unfair advantage.

However, there are occasional unique approaches to Table Topics that may be an exception. For example, you might give the same topic to two people, but one is supposed to give a “pro” response and the other “con.” And of course, in contests each contestant is given the same topic, but there the other contestants are outside the room, so they don’t know what the topic is until it is their turn to perform.

Where am I? while Table Topics respondents are speaking, you, the topicsmaster, should be seated. You’ll be frequently standing up and siting down, so try to sit near the front of the room, or at least situate a chair near the front that you can use during Table Topics, returning to your regular seat once they are done. But please don’t sit behind them, or stand where they think they should be delivering their response directly to you or only to you (I have seen this happen several times). It’s quite disconcerting to everyone involved, especially the speaker.

When do I stop the Table Topics segment? Beforehand you should have asked the TMOTD what time they want you to conclude by. Keep an eye on the time and be respectful of it. It may take a minute or two longer to wrap up than you expected. If you are unsure of when you should finish, you can always ask the TMOTD “do we have time for one more?” but it is preferable to sort this out beforehand. Don’t go by how many topics you should give; go by what time you should finish.

The last Table Topics respondent spoke. Now what? Call on the timer for a timer’s report. Then call for a vote. This is your job, not that of the TMOTD (although they should do these things if you forget). If your timer is awesome, they won’t just say who qualified, but what they talked about. If they didn’t, you should. “Everyone, please vote. You can vote for Sally, who talked about riding pigs, or you can vote for Donald, who talked about snake egg omelets, or you can vote for Tabitha, who talked about her fear of toothpicks.”

Do the Table Topics speakers get evaluated? That depends on the club. If they are evaluated, most likely someone else will be doing the evaluation, but there are a few clubs where the topicsmaster evaluates the speaker. I recommend that clubs evaluate Table Topics speakers.

Do I get evaluated?Maybe. Toastmasters International ballots do have a section for people to write comments to the topicsmaster: most clubs do not collect these, but some do. The general evaluator may or may not give you some feedback in their evaluation of the meeting. Your mentor may give you feedback. But you should positively, absolutely bring your Competent Leadership manual and get credit for that project if you haven’t yet!

Help! I’m addicted to Table Topics! That’s great! See if you can get your club to run a special Table Topics meeting. Don’t just have a blank agenda and do Table Topics for the entire meeting time–have knowledgeable Toastmasters teach the club how to improve their impromptu speaking skills, do plenty of Table Topics, and evaluate the Table Topics speakers.


  1. rodelys /

    i just want to read more of your explanation about table topics..thank you and God bless

  2. rodelys /

    can you suggest more topics about table topic

  3. Roy chacko /

    I found the contents very useful toa toastmaster who would wish to present table Topics in an effective manner.

  4. Larissan9999 /

    I just wanted to find out HOW to do them. It wasn’t clear. Do you have the people pick out a topic or do you hand it to them? I am not sure I understand.

    • Generally you would tell them the topic verbally. “If you were an animal, what animal would you be?” In fact, the recommended approach is to give the question to the entire room. Let them stew and have everyone think on how they would answer the question. Then call out an individual and have them come up and answer. This is the most common style of Table Topics.
      The beautiful thing about Table Topics, however, is that you can get creative and do just about anything. Perhaps you ask for volunteers, and have them come up and get a random object from a bag (without looking) and then their topic is to discuss that object. Or I’ve used Dixit cards, would have the table topics speakers draw three, pick one and then speak on how that oddball piece of art best represented them. Just have fun with it. 🙂

  5. Melanie /

    Thank you for clarifying that with table topics, you must make it to the green light to qualify. The clubs I’ve been involved in allow the grace period on the front side and the back side…I’d like to educate them on this change. Can you point me to where the official TI documentation is for this?

    • You’ll want to look in the contest rulebook. Oddly, the CC manual says something different! I quickly wrote up a post with more of the details:

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