Make your table topics easier by making them harder

Table topics – for those not in Toastmasters – are short speeches that are created on the spot. You get a question, you give a speech. Unprepared.

Some people love them, others hate them. Whichever group you’re in, it is a great skill to have in the real world. True leaders are able to think and speak on their feet. And part of the reason why is that they ARE prepared.


In theatre sports, a form of improv theatre, the actors don’t know what scene they are about to play. They ask the audience for the ingredients, and then improvise a scene. And these scenes are often surprisingly good. How is that possible?

In my improv days I learned that a scene exists of two parts, that I like to call the skeleton and the flesh. The flesh is what you ask the audience. Who are we, where are we, what secret desire do I have?

The skeleton is fixed. And well rehearsed. Time and time again. It is the structure of the scene. There is an endless variety of structures. In theatre sports we call these structures games.

The emotional roller coaster, where the emotional state of the characters change, and with it the whole scene. The flashback where a scene is explained by a scene in the past. The slide show where three players play the slide and one tells the story. And the list goes on and on.


The same skeleton method works just as well for table topics. With a little less variety perhaps.

The main skeleton is one you are already familiar with: opening, body, close. Make a statement, give 3 arguments, draw a conclusion. That kind of speech. Works great. But we can do better.

So what we’re going to do is give the skeleton some more bones. Next time, when you’re about to be called on stage for an unprepared speech, how about you give yourself an extra challenge above and beyond the question you get?

10 white things

When I ask you to quickly name 10 white things, you will come up with the first five immediately and then you probably stall. After which you pick up again and finish the list. The question is not too hard after all.

Strangely enough, the tasks gets easier if I ask you for 10 white things in or around your fridge. You would think it is harder, because I just restricted you, but in fact, when adding the fridge, I gave your mind direction, which makes it a lot easier to come up with the 10 items.

This is why making your table topics question harder can actually make it easier for you.

Restrictions to add

Here are a few of the extra restrictions I gave myself in past table topics. Feel free to experiment with them or come up with your own:

Decide on the opening sentence 

Some of my favourites are:

  • I was five years old…
  • The year was …
  • As the Germans say …

Of course, when I start the speech I’m not yet sure how to combine the opening sentence with the question, but you have a whole speech to explore the connection. The later in your speech you connect the question with the opening story, the more your audience will love it.

Decide on a structural element

For example, you decide to make this a past-present-future speech regardless of the question.

Or you decide to answer a story with a flashback.

Decide on a content element

This is a variation of trying to fit the word of the day in your speech. Maybe you decide that the speech will contain a dog. Or that the question, whatever it is, is going to be a metaphor for the American presidency.


In theatre sports we hone our skills by a lot of practice. We would have practiced and practiced the new skeleton before we do it with an audience. The same holds for table topics. Because improvisation needs to be practiced.

Next time you give a improvised speech in a safe environment – for those not in Toastmasters, that would be at a Toastmasters meeting – experiment with an extra restriction. See how it works out. Let me know!


And maybe you too will notice that the restriction will actually not make it easier, not harder.

As the Germans say: ”In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister”


(photo: Shutterstock)

Why you SHOULD write out your speech


In the previous post I gave you some reasons why you should not write out your speech. But life is never just black and white.

There are excellent reasons why you should write out your speech. Eventually of course it’s up to you to decide based on your preferences and the situation. Let’s have a look at the pros of writing:

Say it right

Sometimes it is important to say the right things in the right way. If your topic is sensitive or political you might want to stick to the script. Improvising might lead to a wrong message, especially if your speech is recorded or if there is press in the room. (Been there, done that)

Writing down your text allows you to have a good second look at it, to have others look at it, and to craft the message in such a way that it will not be misunderstood. If the stakes are high: write.

Say it again

If you need to give the same speech again, it helps to have a written version of it, especially if there is a long time between the two performances. Alternatively you might want to record your speech and watch it back as preparation for the next time, but writing is often simpler. I sometimes had several month between two presentations, and if it wasn’t for the script I would have had to a lot of work. If you need to repeat, a script is neat.

Say it in time

If you have a strict time limit you may want to choose to write out your text so you know that if you stick to the script you stick to the time. Speech contests are an obvious candidate for a well timed script, but there are (fortunately) many tightly scheduled congresses out there where a 20 minutes presentation is a 20 minutes presentation, and you’re not supposed to go over. Experienced speakers don’t even have to clock their speech, they look at the script, count the words maybe, and know how long it will be. You can’t do that if you don’t have a script.

If you need to be exact, count the words.

Say it well

There is a core reason you will want to write down your speech.

Writing allows you to bring your speech to the next level. Writing down your speech brings some added benefits over just rehearsing your speech from memory.

First, you can get better coaching. I have coached people who did and people who did not write out their speech. From the point of view of the coach, a written text is much better. I have more (consistency) to give feedback on. We can spar over style figures. We can focus on delivery.

Second, writing provides you with an overview of the whole speech. This makes it easier to strengthen arguments, to balance examples, to spot omissions, to sort sentences, to optimise transitions.

For example, I have a tendency to go back and forth between past tense and present tense. Writing my speech out allows me to spot the inconsistencies and make a deliberate decision what tense to use when.

A script allows you and others to play with the building blocks of your speech, with your message and your tone in a structured and thoughtful way.

A building was first a drawing.
A painting was first a study.
A good speech was first a text.

However, it’s just a tool

Writing is a tool for the creation of speeches. A tool to memorize the right words. A tool to get the best out of your time with your audience. But it’s not your only tool, and that is where some people go wrong.

The writing is support, YOU are the vehicle that delivers the speech. Spending 90% of your time going over draft after draft doesn’t leave enough time to enhance your delivery.

But leaving out this powerful tool robs you of the possibility to make your speech even better.

Why you should NOT write out your speech

Breaking your pencil

I’ve seen it many times. While preparing a speech the speaker grabs pen and paper (or more often a laptop computer) and frantically starts writing. And then keeps revising and revising in a process that can take days, weeks, months. As the big day of the speech approaches he or she realizes that the speech needs to be rehearsed as well. Memorized even. Oops. No time left.

The results are often less than stellar. The audiences notes that there is something wrong:

” She relied too heavily on her notes”;
” He just wasn’t authentic”;
” Her sentences were too long and convoluted”;
” I just couldn’t follow it”;
” I didn’t feel he was speaking to me, just thinking about his text”;
” It was way too long”.

And worse.

You’re not an actor. You’re a speaker. You don’t have to interpret a fixed script, you need to interpret your thoughts, convictions, ideas. To different audiences, that need different versions.


If you want to connect with your audience, you will need to at least make it seem like you are speaking from the heart, not from the paper. And written language is not the best vehicle for that. Spontaneously spoken text uses short sentences, sentences that don’t finish, interjections. Spontaneous speakers look at the audience, react on things that happen, are able to reflect on current events. Spontaneous speeches include matching body language and vocal variety. Using memorized texts this is going to be hard. Not impossible, but it takes a lot of practice time. Time that most speakers that write out their texts don’t take.


Because of the congruence of body language, vocal variety and content, spoken speeches tend to be a lot more convincing than speeches read out or memorized. Why not simply skip the writing fase? The only things that you really need to get clear is your topic, your goal, and your main points. Once you know these, how about starting the rehearsing process immediately? Saves a lot of time. And often results in a better, more flexible speech.


If you don’t write down and memorize your speech it will be different every time you give it. That brilliant sentence you thought of might be missing because you simply didn’t think of it. But so what? Instead you will look fresh and be there for the audience instead of regurgitating you material.

Longer presentations

Writing out longer keynotes? Half hour, full hour presentations? That’s prohibitive. Save yourself the time. Instead of trying to perfect each and every sentence and then try to learn it all by heart, you better spend your time on the subject of your presentation. Come up with new angles. Incorporate current events. Be the authority.

Nerve cell

How to rehearse without text

How do you go about memorizing your speech without writing it down?
Simply by doing it. Give that speech in front of your bedroom wall (imagining the wall is your audience). Rehearse parts of that speech during a walk in the forest. Shout it out lou

d when stuck in traffic. What happens is that even though it will be slightly different every time you rehearse it, the flow of the speech will get better and better. And there is no need to fear that you may forget parts when giving it for real. Since you’re constantly doing that during your rehearsals, and noticed that you’re making up for it, you know you’re ready to go.


To conclude: writing out your speech is highly overrated. It takes an enormous amount of time, often consuming the time you should have spent rehearsing and practicing. Not only that, it will often make the speech feel less authentic and less convincing to your audience. Why not skip the writing all together?


Next time: why you should write out your speech.

images: moritz320, ColiN00B – Pixabay.

Should you be honest? Maybe not.

In my storytelling workshops there is always a discussion about whether you should be honest and tell personal stories exactly as they happened or you should “improve” them. I say: improve them.

And we all automatically do. We fill in gaps, attach meaning where at the moment there was none, merge different conversations into one, basically paint a brighter picture than there originally was. If we wouldn’t our stories would be boring, and we instinctively know this.

But is this lying?

Hardly. Our memory is a wonderful thing. Every time you recall a memory you change it. What you remember is not the original story but your recollection of a story. So your story will be different from the original, but you don’t realise this. That’s what makes eye witness accounts in court so unreliable.

Changing the story

But as a speaker you go one step further: you wilfully change the story. To make it better. To fit your message. To keep the audience’s attention. And again, most of the times I think this is a good thing. (Law and science might be exceptions)

I think there are two levels of truth: literal truth and intrinsic truth.

Literal truth means that your account is 100% correct. Literal truth is needed in some contexts, even on stage (don’t mess with the annual figures). But most of the time it is not what you or what your audience needs.

Intrinsic truth keeps the meaning and the message of the account intact, while romanticising  the account itself. If you had three conversations with professor X you condense those into one. The fact that there were three conversations is not relevant. Intrinsic truth is reached when you change the facts, but only the unimportant ones. Afterwards, when an audience member comes up to you with more questions, you should be able to say: “this is how it really happened but for the sake of the story, I left this part out, I condensed that part.” And the audience member should agree that that doesn’t really matter.

Doing a Ratner

And then, of course, there is the way in which you are honest. Take a look at this short clip – a fragment of a speech by Gerald Ratner speaking at the Institute of Directors Annual Convention in 1991. In the years prior Ratner had built an empire in cheap jewellery. While the regular jewellers were suffering from the depression his shops did tremendously well by selling jewellery to the general audience at knock-off prices. How was he able to do that? By allowing the quality of his products to be far, far inferior. Which of course, everybody knew. In this fragment of his speech he is extremely candid about it.

“We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, “How can you sell this for such a low price?”, I say, “because it’s total crap.”

The result? Ratner group lost £500 million and almost went under. The consequence of Ratner being too honest. And the media picking up this juicy fragment rather than the rest of his speech.

What should Ratner have done? There is no shame acknowledging that his products were of inferior quality than those of the competitors. But it might not have been smart to laugh at the expense of his customers. Instead of “I say, because it’s total crap” Ratner should have chosen for a more boring alternative like “because the quality is not the same as with expensive jewellers.” Same intrinsic truth, but a different way of wording it.

It would cost him his laugh but not his company.


The full Ratner speech is published by the Institute of Directors:

image by lightstargod @ pixabay


Why you should tap into loss aversion to convince your audience

The psychology of public speaking

The psychology of public speaking

As a speaker it is your job to influence people. You want them to see a different point fo view, to take action, to change their lives. What tools do you use?

The first thing that usually comes to mind is to paint a beautiful vision of where they can end up if they take action. But a more powerful tool is to play into the general human tendency of  loss aversion.

Say, you want to convince your audience to write a book. How would you go about?

Would you stress the advantages of writing a book?
Or would you focus on the disadvantages of NOT writing a book?

Take a moment to think about it.


Although you might be inclined to take the positive approach, stressing what they would lose out on if they don’t take action might actually convince more people.

Loss aversion.

Banksy girl balloon

In our brains the downside is bigger than the upside. In our evolutionary past this was even stronger than it is today. These were times when one stupid mistake could lead to instant death. Careless people didn’t make it into the gene pool. The people who did, the careful, who didn’t take big risks, are our ancestors.


Empiric proof shows that a loss has an emotional impact that is twice as strong as a win. Loss aversion may lead to illogical decisions, but it leads to decision quickly.

So if you want to convince your audience, don’t argue about the potential benefits, mention the potential aversion of a loss.


Knowing the power of loss aversion it is extremely simple to add this tool to your presentations. It suffices to turn the benefits upside down.

Say, you want your audience to consider buying solar panels. Instead of telling them how much money they will save on the investment, you are much more convincing if you tell them that they can avoid losing that money if they don’t invest in solar.


So start convincing your audience by making use of their loss aversion.

It will make you a more impactful speaker. Or let me put that differently. You will never reach your potential as a speaker if you don’t use this technique.


pics by geralt, pixel2013 / pixabay


Why? Why the constant first at reactions, mostly at youtube. What does it signify?
Depth? No.
Boredom? Maybe.
Humor? Not any more.
Opportunistic mindless copying? That must be it!

More importantly: who was the first first? Because that’s creativity. Maybe not with a capital C, but nonetheless.

There is nothing wrong with first, unless you’re not first.

Anyway, this is my first post on this blog.
Deep? No.
Original? Hardly.
Opportunistic mindless copying? I hope not.