I know why “Table Topics” are called “Table Topics” in Toastmasters. According to the Toastmasters website, these two-minute impromptu speaking exercises, which typically occur at the table (rather than the lectern/podium) “improve confidence and impromptu public speaking skills.”
When you participate in a Table Topics competition, however, the “table” part goes out the window as you speak on a stage in front of the contest attendees (which can be 10 people in an area contest or hundreds at a division or district contest).
When I participated in the Area 82 and 83 Spring Speech Contest at Unity Eastside Church on March 12, 2016, I had the opportunity to relax after participating in the Area 82 contest and simply enjoy the Area 83 contest. The question was “Identify your greatest fear and how you have overcome it.”
As each of of the five participants approached the stage, I wondered what they would talk about. Spiders? Flying? Falling? Bridges, water, closed spaces, the number 13, clowns, snakes? It turns out the five participants had fears that were less specific but, to me, more profound and eminently relatable:
While I suppose there are Toastmasters (and non-Toastmasters) out there who truly feel ONLY ENERGIZED by and NEVER TERRIFIED BY public speaking, I am guessing many more of us fall much closer to the “scared of” end of the spectrum. I always say I joined Toastmasters because I don’t want to be “that awful speaker” I have heard way too many times. To the gentleman for whom this is a fear: your two minutes proved you are well on your way of facing that fear head on and overcoming it!
Being Harshly Judged
If it would not have been utterly inappropriate, I would have stood up on my chair the moment this participant announced her biggest fear and pronounced “ME TOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” What struck me about this speech was the participant’s explanation of how the fear GREW as she gained life experience, instead of DIMINISHING. For me, I keep reading all these stories of women who, having reached “mid-life,” have gotten to the “I really don’t care what others think” phase, and wanting to know if AAA does a Trip-Tik to that because I seem to have lost my way! I suppose it’s a work in progress, like most things in life. One thing about Toastmasters is we don’t just learn to speak, we learn to evaluate, non-judgmentally and constructively. I think this participant has chosen a great place to keep overcoming that fear.
Another one where I could easily see myself being a part of the “me too” chorus! Especially when the speaker talked about his first venture coaching little kids in soccer, I could relate to the fact that very small people can bring out our biggest inadequate feelings. As the speaker pointed out, humility was part of the equation for resolving the fear; once he humbled himself to admit his inadequacies and seek help, everything improved. Humility is, indeed, powerful.
Failing as a Parent
Perhaps there are parents out there brimming with confidence, never questioning themselves, their choices, or the example they have provided for their children. I am not that parent. It is no exaggeration for me to say that being a parent is all I ever wanted to be. I realize that declaration does not embody any work life balance but it’s the simple truth. I gave birth 19 and 16 years ago, respectively, and have subsequently questioned myself the whole time. And I have degrees in child development and counseling. There’s nothing like procreating to eviscerate the academic initials you thought taught you something!
Something Happening to Your Kids
Although this topic is in the same category as the one above, it was a very different speech. I’ve been around the block long enough to have seen many tragedies befall friends, family, acquaintances, and now thanks to social media, a stream of people I will never know but for whom I still feel grief and sadness as they cope with unspeakable outcomes for the people who mean the most to them. This speaker did a great job of distinguishing between our tendencies as parents, especially when our children are young, to turn every cut and scrape into a catastrophe in our minds, and the dangers that really matter. It’s easy to forget to live while trying to mitigate for all the imagined dangers that may befall our children.
In the case of the five participants from Area 83, it turns out their greatest fears are ones that are harder to conquer than a spider and harder to avoid than a clown. They are the kinds of things that keep people up at night and can take a lifetime to learn to manage.
At my home club, Podemos Hablar, which is quite small, I have heard Table Topics speeches about fears and other difficulties in which the participants disclosed profound pieces of their souls. There have been plenty of light and downright amusing Table Topics speeches too, don’t get me wrong, but I am consistently reminded that you can learn a lot about a person and gain a different perspective on life in two minutes through the simple act of listening.
That’s the funny thing. We come here to speak but sometimes we learn the most without saying a word.
Lastly, I want to share the speech I gave as my entry to the club level International Speech contest at Podemos Hablar. It did not advance to Saturday’s contest, but I am passionate about this topic (not about the pencils themselves, but about education for all children, everywhere). It was inspired by a speech I saw Jackson Kaguri give at the 2015 Social Good Summit. This video was my last practice session the day of the contest. I am seriously considering keeping the speech in the rotation, and continuing to refine it, if for no other reason than it took a long time to figure out how to do what I do at the end with a pencil; there’s a reason Jackson’s father used a machete!
Stopwatch image courtesy of atibodyphoto at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.