Turn Your Toastmasters Table Topics Into Back Pocket Stories

I want to begin this piece by stating that I have never been a member of a Toastmasters group. I have visited a local chapter for a session and participated in Table Topics. I have worked with clients who are actively in Toastmasters groups and people who have been told by their boss that they need to join one to improve their public speaking and interpersonal communication.

From an outsider looking in, I find Toastmasters to be very archaic, formulaic, and designed to support men over women. After all it was founded in 1924 and did not allow women to participate until 1973. I’m not the only one who feels this way.

However, one positive takeaway of this International speaking organization is their emphasis on using storytelling as a communication tool and building the idea of Table Topics into each Toastmasters meeting. For those unfamiliar with the concept, Table Topics are impromptu speeches. They are introduced into every Toastmasters meeting and participants have one to two minutes to think on their feet and speak on the topic presented to them. It's a great way to flex your improv muscles and to let your imagination run wild and to uncover your natural speaking style. But even if you are electing to be at a Toastmasters meeting, being asked to think on your feet and wow your peers can be anxiety inducing times ten. But there’s a way that you can prepare for Table Topics and feel less like you are on the spot and more like you are in the spotlight.

When I think of the term Table Topics I think of an impersonal speech. I think of worrying about the perfect delivery of an off-the-cuff two minute speech on a surprise subject that I may or may not be passionate about. But what if we reframe this activity into something that is joyful, unique, and builds connection between you, the speaker, and your audience?

In the same way that Tell Me A Story flips the buzzword of storytelling on its head and zooms in on the art and craft of personal narrative, we do the same for Toastmasters Table Topics.

Say good-bye to Toastmasters Table Topics. Say hello to Back Pocket Stories.

What is a Back Pocket Story, you ask?

It's a short personal narrative that you can keep in your imaginary back pocket for when you need to communicate an idea, build a connection, or break the ice. You should have a stack of them, ready to use at all times. These aren't memorized mini-monologues, but rather casual stories that you've prepped in advance and practiced with family, friends or colleagues. No matter the topic they should light you up just from thinking about them. You should feel compelled to share them with any audience. And the good news for those of you who are active Toastmasters members: You can use them during Table Topics and wow the rest of your group!

The neat thing about Back Pocket Stories is their ability to fit a number of themes and categories. They are your stories — you know what they mean to you, and what message, emotions, and experiences they cover. Find the one that works best for the Table Topic at hand and give it a go. You don't need to validate your reason for choosing it, just share the story with your audience and see what resonates for them. The true skill that is being developed during a round of Table Topics is staying present with your listeners, staying grounded in your body and your voice, and staying true to who you are.

Let me repeat those three things:

Stay present with your listeners.

Stay grounded in your body and your voice.

Stay true to who you are.

If you are doing that, you can speak on any topic, tell any story, and you will shine.

How to find your Back Pocket Stories

Brainstorm the stories that you have a blast sharing. Maybe these are your go-to stories with friends or a funny moment that has stuck with you over time. Or a crazy adventure where you were doubtful that you were going to have a happy ending. You can speak on the moments that changed you — small moments and big. You can talk about traveling, relationships, work accomplishments, mistakes, surprises, the list goes on.

Here are a few prompts to get started:

You can brainstorm your Back Pocket Stories using these prompts to start. 1. Something that you did that you never thought you could do. 2. Worst mistake. 3. Best career moment. 4. First accomplishment.

Brainstorming is a key part of our Crafting Your Personal Narrative workshop and all of our 1-on-1 Coaching sessions. It's a muscle that can be strengthened. Start by writing out a numbered list 1 through 10 on a lined sheet of paper. Write down the first ten story ideas that pop into your mind. Try not to place judgement on what they are or whether or not they have a beginning, middle and end. Just see what comes out from your first gut response to the exercise. Then you can read back through the list and circle one or two or three of the stories that excite you the most. Check in to make sure they have a beginning, middle, and end (or that they could potentially have that structure if you were to work on it).

Work out those three from your list as your first three Back Pocket Stories. Bring them with you in your imaginary back pocket for your next team meeting, book club, or perhaps even your next Toastmasters meeting!


Build your arsenal of Back Pocket Stories with 30 days of personal narrative prompts

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