Should Table Topics be Evaluated?

Dec 13

Page 71 of the Competent Communication manual briefly mentions that the general evaluator is responsible for the members of the evaluation team, including the “Table Topics evaluator if your club has one.” This brief allusion to this optional role is practically all Toastmasters International has to say on the matter. It is an official Toastmasters meeting role, but each club is left to choose whether to include it or not, and TI gives no indication of how to perform this role. In some districts, practically every club evaluates Table Topics, although in some places it is largely unheard of.

Why evaluate Table Topics?

Table Topics are fun, but they aren’t just a game. Our goal is to learn to become clear, capable communicators, even with no preparation time. This is a valuable skill, but how can we grow as impromptu speakers without feedback, without evaluations? The Toastmasters program provides feedback for prepared speakers, evaluators, Toastmasters of the Day, ah counters and so on—but typically not Table Topics speakers.

Toastmasters can deliver Table Topics for years and still not be as effective or as organized in their responses as they could be. In my opinion, impromptu speaking should have more education and more evaluation.

For me, everything and everyone should be evaluated.

~ Jock Elliot

Why should Table Topics not be evaluated

Some clubs make a conscious choice to not evaluate Table Topics.

“There isn’t enough time.” Perhaps, perhaps not. Maybe it’s an opportunity to improve time management in the meeting. Perhaps you only need to take 1-2 minutes to evaluate Table Topics. Or perhaps you can have an occasional special meeting focused on Table Topics.

“It will intimidate guests and new speakers.” It is true that it can be hard enough for someone nervous to get up and speak just for a minute in front of the group. If they are afraid of being judged and criticized, that would make it even harder. On the other hand, if your evaluations are educational and encouraging without being discouraging, and if you are especially kind and supportive of new speakers, thanking them and applauding them for stepping up, that may help encourage them to come back and learn more.

I would encourage every club to at least consider adding Table Topics evaluations, or to consider running them on an occasional basis.

How should Table Topics evaluations work?

With so little direction from Toastmasters International, there is a wide divergence in how clubs run Table Topics evaluations. Some approaches different clubs use:

  • Have occasional meetings where members practice many Table Topics, give evaluations, teach advanced impromptu strategies
  • Encourage the general evaluator to treat Table Topics like other meeting roles, making brief comments on Table Topics speakers that grabbed her attention, without necessarily giving in depth comments on every one.
  • Have the topicsmaster evaluate Table Topics speakers before returning control of the meeting to the Toastmaster of the Day.
  • Have a “Table Topics evaluator” role on the agenda with a 2-3 minute slot to give feedback on any/all Table Topics speakers.
  • Have the Table Topics evaluator also give feedback on the topicsmaster, instead of the general evaluator evaluating the topicsmaster
  • Have “odds” and “evens” Table Topics evaluators. If Adam, Bob, Chelsea and Danielle speak, then the odds evaluator will evaluate Adam and Chelsea, writing down notes while the evens evaluator is paying attention to Bob and Danielle.
  • Call on the Table Topics evaluator in the evaluation segment of the meeting.
  • Give Table Topics evaluations as soon as all Table Topics are finished.
  • Evaluate each Table Topic immediately after it occurs (this works best if either the topicsmaster is doing the evaluation or, in the interests of time, the evaluator gives a 15-45 second evaluation from their seat).
  • Warning: if you vote on Best Table Topics Speaker of the Day (which I encourage), make sure to wait to evaluate them until after the votes are collected, so audience members vote based on their own perception, unbiased by the evaluator’s comments.
  • Have each Table Topics speaker first evaluate the previous respondent, then get their topic, then speak. The first speaker evaluates the last. However, this makes it harder to get evaluations from experienced members, and prevents you from giving the question first and then calling a member to answer the topic, which is what TI suggests.
  • Just as each speaker has a dedicated evaluator who speaks for 2-3 minutes, give each Table Topics speaker a dedicated evaluator for 2-3 minutes. This results in a very large number of roles, logistical difficulties and a huge expense of time, as the evaluators speak longer than the actual speaker. On the other hand, it could be useful for a specialty Table Topics meeting.
  • Mentors are trained to give Table Topics feedback outside the meeting to their proteg├ęs
  • Encourage Table Topics speakers to repeat the question, to be clear and to give themselves time to think.
  • Discourage Table Topics speakers from repeating the question, thinking of doing so as “filler,” an unnecessary action that adds nothing to the response
  • Encourage speakers just to say something, even if they completely avoid the original topic.
  • Encourage speakers to treat a Table Topic as a mini speech: to be on point and have a clear outline.
  • Use the Table Topics Contest Judge’s Guide and Ballot as a guide for evaluating Table Topics.
  • Use the basic sandwich evaluation method: one commendation (“I loved how you used the chair as a prop!”) followed by one recommendation (“I would have loved you to use character voices when telling us your grandmother’s life advice”) followed by one commendation (“Your energetic delivery really caught my interest”).

Who evaluates? When? Timed or untimed? How long do they speak for? What makes a good Table Topic? This can seem overwhelming—every club does something different.

My recommendation, that I feel is in the spirit of Toastmasters based on other roles and what little Toastmasters does say about this, is to have a Table Topics evaluator role on the agenda. Time them for 2-3 minutes (unless you feel something different would work for your club). Schedule this role in the evaluation segment of the meeting, after speech evaluators finish. Instruct the Table Topics evaluator to briefly give comments on each speaker in turn, telling them something encouraging and giving them one thing to grow on.

Do you have other ideas about how to help Table Topics speakers improve? Please leave a comment below!

2 comments

  1. If you organized a 30-minute WORKSHOP on impromptu speech evaluation what would it look like?

    • Oh man. I could easily work for hours on teaching evaluation skills. I’d have to carefully think about it, but the key points I would try to express would be:

      • It being impromptu doesn’t excuse you from practicing the skills
      • Have a structure, an outline you can regularly use
      • Some of the things to look for in an evaluation (there would only be time to mention a few of the many possible factors to evaluate, of course)
      • It’s not just about balancing “positive” with “negative” feedback—HOW you phrase feedback very much affects how it is received

      30 minutes is in some ways brief, but still a good chunk of time. With care, you might be able to squeeze a few quick exercises in there–an hour would be much better.
      Depending on the group’s experience level, I would likely make the topic more fine-tuned so I could cover it in more depth and make it more interactive, rather than the broad overview I outlined above. Newer clubs may wonder “what do I even say?” and then I would focus more on sharing observations when you don’t have advice, and how to learn how to look for. Another club may give highly analytical evaluations, but need to learn how to give them in an encouraging way. Another club may give some good feedback, but every evaluation would be randomly thrown together, when they could have better quality or make their life easier by having a consistent system to follow. A club preparing for an evaluation contest would want tips specific to contest strategy.
      So there’s no easy answer, but I hope this gives you some ideas!

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