How Can I Give Better Impromptu Speeches?

Dec 23

Table Topics are often undervalued in Toastmasters. Sure, they’re fun. Sure, they are a great way to break the ice with people not yet comfortable giving a full speech. But Table Topics are far more valuable than that. In my opinion, they should be considered an opportunity to train our skills in delivering eloquent, well-structured speeches with little to no notice.

I would encourage Toastmasters clubs and individual Toastmasters to take this more seriously. Challenge yourselves: the next time you answer a Table Topic, how can you improve your response? Not just speaking, but coherently articulating a point?

Please consider evaluating Table Topics to give more focus to this valuable skill.

It can be quite beneficial for clubs to host a Table Topics meeting once in a while. (VPE, special meetings and learning opportunities like this are your job.) By “Table Topics” meeting, I don’t just mean a cop-out where you don’t fill any agenda roles and just fill the time with an ordinary, but long, Table Topics session. I mean a meeting truly devoted to improving Table Topics. Explain why they’re important. Do lots of Table Topics. Evaluate them. Have Toastmasters (this is a great opportunity to invite experienced guest speakers from other clubs) come and teach how to give better impromptu speeches. Consider having people try impromptu 5-7 minute speeches.

How can we give better Table Topics? I wish I knew. Five years in Toastmasters as of the time of this writing, and that’s a skill I can definitely improve on.

But I’ll share some tips from when I was on the forensics (speech) team in college. There, students would practice year round for speaking events. Sometimes their scholarships would be riding on their performance in these contests. It was intense. They were good! (I just kind of fell into it, but I learned a lot.) They had seven minutes to perform. The clock started the moment they flipped over the paper with their topic (generally a quotation, although that isn’t important) on it. Some would take no more than 30 seconds to think about their speech. Some 15. Some would just read the paper, stand up and begin. But they all gave crystal clear, incredibly structured speeches.


They prepared in a special way. They knew their outline, and they knew their stories. My coach urged us to make a list of about 20 topics we could discuss for 1 minute each. (Although current events and historical figures went over well with the judges, I perversely enjoyed how Star Wars could fit any situation.)

Most of the competitors used the same outline, although that outline might vary slightly by university. If memory serves (this was six years ago) a typical outline would be:

  1. Introduction
    1. Opener: take one of the examples from your list. Just mention it briefly in terms of how it relates to the quotation
    2. Read the quotation
    3. State your opinion on the quotation, whether you agree or disagree
    4. Give two reasons why
  2. Body
    1. Reason one
    2. Preview examples
      1. Preview examples
      2. Example one (something relevant from your list)
      3. Example two
      4. Review examples
    3. Reason two
      1. Preview examples
      2. Example three
      3. Example four
      4. Review examples
  3. Conclusion
    1. Repeat quotation
    2. Repeat stance (agree or disagree)
    3. Review reasons
    4. Closer: tie back to story used in opener and end speech

The goal for many of these students is to complete their speech on the very last second of their time! They know how long their outline takes, how long their assignment takes, and choose their words carefully as they come down to the end of their time.

Am I suggesting you copy this exact same method? No, not at all. It is an inflexible method, so heavily structured as to sound unnatural while listening. But it does show that you can give beautifully well-formed responses very rapidly.

The key to take away from their example is that they know their subject and they know their outline. The rest—the specific wording and delivery can be practiced until it comes easily.

Be aware of the point you want to make (or the story you want to tell) in your Table Topics response. Start thinking about outlines for your Table Topics. Perhaps it is an outline like above. Perhaps a simple opening-point-point-point-closing outline. Depending on the topic, a chronological outline or something else may be suitable, but don’t just ramble: have a clear idea of where you are going and what path you will take to get there. This takes practice (I still can improve greatly in this area), and it requires conscious effort.

Just doing Table Topics is not enough. Perform with intent to improve.

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