Think fast, talk slow: An Introduction to Table Topics

speak, cross-stitch When it comes to a Toastmasters meeting, the hands-down favorite event is usually our extemporaneous speech feature, "Table Topics."

One person takes on the task of coming up with a slew of questions which she then springs on a series of unsuspecting (but, for the most part, secretly hopeful) victims, who are given a short window of time (1 minute minimum, 2 minutes maximum), to answer their particular question. It can be great fun, especially if the Table Topics Master (or "Mistress", as I insist upon being called, "Madame Table Topics Master" being more ridiculousness than I can stomach) chooses a good theme.

It's my favorite role at a meeting, so much so that I don't let myself volunteer for it anymore. I figure that I should spend my time learning new skills and getting better at things I suck at, and letting other people discover how much fun it is to be Table Topics Mistress. On my first at-bat, I chose the theme "True or False...and WHY!?!?", comprised of a series of classic quotations from my files with the framing question. Another time I ran with an international theme of sorts, giving each player a proverb from a different country and letting them speak on the topic (pro or con is a pretty typical Table Topics gambit).

But my favorite Table Topics session was the simplest, hearkening back to those old, fourth-grade discussions at sleepovers or on the playground. You know, the "would you rather be blind or deaf?" type of grammar-school-philosophy arguments.

In case you want to play along at home, I'd thought I'd include the batch of questions I wound up using that night. Yes, every one of these puppies has been road-tested by an Actual Toastmaster, who came up with a 1–2 minute speech on the spot.

If you had to choose, would you rather... a little overweight and not be able to lose it or extremely underweight and not be able to gain it?

...go without dessert forever or go without fruit forever? the President of the United States or the Vice President of the United States?

...get an extra hour of sleep per night or an extra 20 hours' pay per week? an identical twin or a fraternal twin?

...go to the most exciting show in the world or stay home and read the greatest book in the world? (NOTE: You're getting ONE chance to do either, i.e., you can't say "I'll go to the show tonight and read the book tomorrow," as our beloved Miss Ida did.)

...wear really comfortable shoes that made you feel dumpy or really beautiful shoes that made you feel uncomfortable?

...own the house of your dreams or be able to buy someone really deserving theirs?

...have a perfect memory or be able to truly forget the worst things in your life?

...have your dream color in a color you hate or an ordinary car in a color you love?

...have mild colds the rest of your life, or one month when you had all your colds at once?

(HINT: for you non-Nerdmasters, these also make fantastic blog post ideas ...)

xxx c

Image by kittenry via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

The things you learn from nerds, Craigslist and shock radio

nerd I'm crazy about my beloved Toastmasters club, but that doesn't mean I don't retain a healthy sense of self-awareness about what we truly are: nerds nerds nerds.

People ask me why I go. Some people smirk a lot and look superior when they ask it, they're asking not to ask, but to let me know they know something. These are the people with a preconceived notion not only of Toastmasters, but of the world in general. The kind of people who also make immediate assumptions about someone who listens to Dr. Laura Schlessinger or is a fan of The Tom Leykis Show or sleeps with a married man or believes in reincarnation or only drives sensible cars.

What I'd ask someone who makes those kind of assumptions is, "What do you think of a person who does all of the above?"

This is the crux of it: if you make too many assumptions, you miss out on vast quantities of cool things, of huge swathes of life, of startling epiphanies, joyous surprises and yes, great sex. I know: first I missed out, now I watch (and watch, and watch) as other people do.

They miss out by trying to be cool (hint: really cool people are usually way down with the nerds).

They miss out by being cynical: sometimes that thing that's too good to be true is actually both good and true.

They miss out by playing it safe, opportunity does many things, but knocking twice at your door is rarely one of them.

Tonight, I drove 15 miles to be one of 10 people to hear two of the most amazing speeches I've heard in my life. One was about an actress who drove a taxi as her day job...from age 62 - 70; the other was a perfectly crafted story about the perils of judging a book by its cover, delivered with startling wit, grace and clarity by one who knows.

If you do not do the things that seem weird or strange or hopelessly nerdy because of fear or fatigue, you lose.

And the saddest thing of all is, you will never know how much.

Answer the ad. Pause to ask the question. Engage in conversation. Reward does not always follow risk, but it cannot exist without it.

xxx c

Want more? I also wrote about Toastmasters and impromptu speaking exercises here.

Photo by michaelatacker via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license