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.
To summarise, an impromptu session can be structured in the order below:
- Describe the session as an impromptu session and why it’s relevant to practice how to speak on your feet.
- Explain a technique that is recommended for answering the questions.
- Get a more experienced member of the audience to come up and give example.
- Open the floor for others to try.
- Point out and praise good usage of the technique.
- 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 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! Subscribe and share this post if you like it. Starting a new blog is hard and I need all the help that I can get!
This post was originally published on 6 Feb 2019, and was updated on 7 Feb 2019.
CEO & Co-founder of Get Sandwich
Martha coaches people presenting on startup pitches and science presentation grants. When she's not hard at work helping people present better, she can be found travelling around the globe and eating delicious delicacies.