How to Pick the Best Impromptu Topics

Running an impromptu or a table topic session doesn’t have to be hard. If you pick good topics, people will most likely be willing to participate and learn a thing or two. If you don’t, the impromptu session will turn into a wasted opportunity for everybody. When I first run such session, I never thought much about what constitutes a good or a bad topic but over time, I realise I was wrong.


Sadly for everything that has been written on this topic, most people pick their topics following one common rule: randomly. Picking a topic randomly does not provide the opportunity for people to learn and see the breadth of answers. For example, it’s hard to see how you should answer a question on “What’s your favourite coffee blend?” from another person who may get a question like, “How can we reduce child mortality?”. The content will be vastly different, and most likely the structure of the answer will be significantly different. A better alternative is to ask another person, “What’s the first tea you’ve ever tasted?”. The coffee and the tea questions set the speakers more evenly, and hopefully, everyone in the audience will be able to compare and contrast the two answers.

I think the best kind of impromptu topic is the one where the audience and the speaker, can learn from. The topic is relevant and interesting. It’s specifically designed to improve speaking skills, for example, in having a better structure or to practice handling the nerves. The best impromptu session is, thus, the one that packages all of that in one practice session.

Learning any skill happens through three steps: instruction, imitation and then practice. An impromptu session is a perfect fit for a mini-learning session. I have found that explaining a technique such as the bridging technique can fit nicely as a short instruction. For the imitation part, get a more experienced speaker who is familiar with the chosen technique to start first, then invite the rest to practice their impromptu speaking.

Image of learning

To summarise, an impromptu session can be structured in the order below:

  1. Describe the session as an impromptu session and why it’s relevant to practice how to speak on your feet.
  2. Explain a technique that is recommended for answering the questions.
  3. Get a more experienced member of the audience to come up and give example.
  4. Open the floor for others to try.
  5. Point out and praise good usage of the technique.
  6. Encourage as many people as possible to come up on stage to speak.


If you’re wondering what other techniques there are, do read on because I’ve listed three techniques with sample questions to get you started.

PREP (Point, Reason, Example, Point)

First, try to practice following a structure such as PREP (Point, Reason, Example, Point). You can start with clearly stating a point of view that you support (or against) for the speech, then give a primary reason and examples to clarify the reason. If you have more time, you can then move on to a supporting reason, followed by examples to elaborate on the second reason. When you want to summarise the speech, you can restate the first point again. Hearing the main point for the second time will make your speech coherent.

I’ve listed below five questions to get you started brainstorming on this technique.

Make people agree with the statements:

  • The fastest way to get rich is to be lazy.
  • Big is always beautiful.
  • Books are the best mentors.
  • Green is the new black.
  • Getting married are just for losers.


Ending with a summary

Another useful technique to practice on is to put emphasis in ending well. Most newbies started strong but don’t have time to think of the ending. To help change this, you can the speakers to practice ending with summaries and stop.


Ask the speakers to end their speeches with the sentences below.

  • And that’s why I always have coffee in my bag
  • And that’s why I like working on Sundays
  • And that’s why my friends envy me.
  • And that’s why I don’t like cake.
  • And that’s why my parents ask me to pay for the movies.

It’s surprisingly easier to work backward once you know where the goal is. Speakers would find it easier to fill the middle once they started on a tangent rather than figuring out the endings while speaking at the same time.


Bridging technique

Bridging technique can get a bad rap sometimes because many politicians abused it. The Art of Manliness states that the trick is to acknowledge the significance of the question, then look for “a logical pivot point towards what you think is the more important issue”.

Five questions you can use in this exercise. These questions are designed to be difficult to answer truthfully, therefore the best way to answer these will be to bridge to another topic that is more familiar to the speaker. The words with potential pivot are bolded.

  • Tell me about how the healthcare system works in your country?
  • How can we stay immortal with freezing our body?
  • Please tell me how cancer can be cured?
  • What are the economics of producing food ecologically?
  • Can you please explain the science behind how a rocket works?

If it helps, show a video as an example.


There you have it. Three simple techniques to enrich your impromptu sessions. If you think of other creative ways to run these impromptu table topic sessions, let us know!


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3 Worthwhile Public Speaking Courses to Hone Your Presentation Skills to The Next Level

Learning a new skill can sometimes be difficult, especially when there are not enough time to learn them. Your other commitments always seem to be much more urgent. It’s a common trap, but failing to learn new skills for an extended period of time indicates a lack of investment in your own personal development.  And that may bite you later.

Learning a new skill in public speaking can seem difficult but it shouldn’t be. Presentation skill is just like any other skill, where it can be deconstructed into three areas: instruction, imitation, and practice. For example on learning how to play tennis, the best way to start is to have an easy to follow guide on what is the game of tennis, how to score points, what are the shots that are allowed and not allowed. These are instructions. Then, you can learn through imitating the tennis coach, mostly on how to hit a forehand at first, and then maybe backhand several weeks later. Once you are able to somewhat imitate the shots, the coach will then let you practice.

All three components, instruction, imitation and practice are very important.

File:BSPC 19 i Nyborg Danmark 2009 (4).jpg

(Image via Wikipedia)

Let’s take the tennis analogy and apply it to public speaking. Firstly, it’s important to know why we speak publicly and how it is different to other mediums such as writing, or one-to-one conversations. Consequently, it’s useful to see examples of great public speakers to deconstruct what they do best. Nowadays, TED and youtube make it very easy to do. What’s left is then, the practice itself, where you can practice imitating speakers you to present yourself in the best light possible.

My experience in learning public speaking has been a process of trial and error, mainly because I’ve skipped the first two steps. I didn’t learn any instruction, nor found speakers with similar style to me that I’d like to imitate. Instead, I jumped directly into practice. As a result, after eight years in Toastmasters, I felt that I have stagnated and I have not reached a point where I am happy with my speaking. Does this sound like you? You are not alone.

Tim Ferriss was famous for his method of learning anything faster called DiSSS (deconstruction, selection, sequencing, and stakes), and I wish I’d seen it earlier than last year.


“What are the minimum learnable units, the LEGO blocks, I should be starting with?



“Which 20% of the blocks should I focus on for 80% or more of the outcome I want?



“In what order should I learn the blocks?”



“How do I set up stakes to create real consequences and guarantee I follow the program?”

Beyond the acronym, two other things make the difference between actually following through and stalling in the middle of a project.

Looking through this list makes me think of my days in university. Educational courses and classes would surely help in the deconstruction, selection and sequencing of learning how to present well. Either you are just starting out right now, or you’ve tried public speaking in the past, here are a few good online courses I’ve found for you. I’ve enrolled myself in some of these, and I hope this list will help you too.

The most recommended course is at the top, and all courses are new and up-to-date in term of content.

1. Introduction to Public Speaking – Coursera

This free course is run by Dr Matt McGarrity, Principal Lecturer from the University of Washington. It is part of a Coursera specialisation course on public speaking. The next three courses in the same specialisation are speaking to inform, speaking to persuade and speaking to entertain.

Syllabus for the course is below (copied from the course page for your convenience).

Week 1: Understanding speech

Thank you for joining Introduction to Public Speaking! I am thrilled at the prospect of a global discussion about good speech. Let’s get started! In this module, we’ll focus on the basics of the course and how rhetorical canons will help us structure our time….


Week 2: Making ideas compelling and memorable

Now that we have the course foundation out of the way, we can work on our basic speech model: the key point speech. I love this format. It’s the Swiss army knife of speeches. This basic model works in interviews, short presentations and elevator talks.


Week 3: Illustrating and delivering your ideas

This week, we’ll talk about support and arrangement. The lessons here will immediately help all of your other presentations. Why? Because we need to think about how audiences hear our ideas in real time.


Week 4: Overcoming your fear of public speaking and developing great delivery

This week, we’ll discuss speech apprehension and delivery. I know the fear of public speaking is a pressing topic for many. Why didn’t we start the course with this? Because I think many delivery concerns go away if the invention and arrangement are good.


Week 5: Course conclusion and your final speech

Thank you for time in this course. I hope the material has proven helpful in some way. We concluded our discussion of the speech last week.

The production quality of the course is extremely high, Matt McGarrity is a great presenter, at times hilarious! The structure of the course is taught in bite-sized videos where it’s easy to digest and work on. If you don’t have much time, and are the type who typically need to read books before you start anything new, you’d enjoy this course tremendously.


2. Chris Anderson on Public Speaking – Udemy

Although this course is not free, it’s worthwhile to check out. Chris Anderson is the curator TED, the giant conference where famous people speak on. Chris definitely has an insight to what makes great speakers, so if you want a light hearted, easy to follow courses, where there are plenty of examples to imitate from wonderful TED speakers, this is the course for you.

Syllabus for the course is below (copied from the course page for your convenience).

Section 1: The Key Elements of Powerful Public Speaking

Welcome Message from Chris Anderson
Introduce Yourself to the Course Community
What All Great Talks Have in Common
RESOURCE: Find Your Powerful Idea
The 4 Types of Talks to Avoid
Diagnose What Went Wrong With These Talks
How to Structure a Successful Talk
RESOURCE: Craft Your Throughline


Section 2: 5 Tools for Successful Talks

The Tool of Connection
The Tool of Narration
The Tool of Explanation
The Tool of Persuasion
The Tool of Revelation
RESOURCE: Outline Your Talk


Section 3: How to Banish Your Fears of Public Speaking & Successfully Rehearse

Overcome Your Fear of Public Speaking
Case Study: How Monica Lewinsky Overcame Her Fear of Speaking
How to Rehearse Your Talk
How to Use Visuals with Your Talk
Start Your Talk So That People Pay Attention
End Your Talk Powerfully
RESOURCE: Plan the Beginning and Ending of Your Talk
Practice and Share Your Talk


Section 4: Why Public Speaking Matters More Than Ever

Why Public Speaking Matters More Than Ever
Parting Advice from Chris

Chris Anderson himself as a presenter is so wonderful, with a soothing voice and incredible charisma, he’s almost the perfect coach to learn from. It’s a joy to watch, and easier to digest than Matt McGarrity’s course above.

Where this course lacks, in my opinion, is context and structure, if your more historically inclined, or that you’ve had a public speaking practice before, you might prefer Matt McGarrity’s course.


3. Public Speaking Fundamentals –

This course is taught by Laura Bergells, a professional speaker and a community builder who has been in the industry for some time. It is not a free course, however, the price is a subscription which is affordable, and allow you to learn many more things than just public speaking.

Syllabus for the course is below (taken from the course page for your convenience).

Lesson one: Preparing your Speech

Identifying your audience
Understanding the venue
Developing personal credibility
Generating ideas for your presentation
Finding your story
Building storyboards


Lesson two: Warming Up

Warming up
Saying yes to the microphone
Coping with anxiety


Lesson three: Opening

Exploring five strong openings
Introducing your agenda
Handling common opening mistakes


Lesson four: Delivering

Developing vocal variety
Eliminating crutch words such as um, er, and uh
Developing great body language
Using props and visual aids
Dealing with technical mishaps


Lesson five: Closing

Handling Q&A sessions
Having a strong close
Getting feedback



Final inspiration

The structure of the course is designed for people to start speaking straight away, focusing on common questions people have when they’ve just started. It’s great to go through, very practical, and probably take a lot less time to go through than the other two. But I think it’s less meaty than the other two courses above, try it out still, you will be in great hands with the instructor. She is clear, concise and full of wisdom.


What are you waiting for?

(Image via Flickr)

The courses above will guide you on the first two phases of instruction and imitations. On the third phase i.e. practising, all you need to do is to find a community of people who are willing to practice with you. You can do that in Get Sandwich or places such as Toastmasters. More on that for another post!


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(Feature image via Wikipedia)