How To Do Topics

The purpose of this is to give some ideas on ways to approach topics.

Topics is the fun part of the evening at our clubs or so we are constantly told and it certainly is when watching others do them but then as you are settling down and enjoying it you are suddenly called upon to do one!

Some of you may relish this but I know that many do not and actively avoid doing them.

Why do we do Topics?

They make us better speakers by practising our impromptu skills; you never know what you are going to be asked.

Of course we use such impromptu skills everyday

At a business meeting being put on the spot when suddenly asked to explain why you made a specific decision to do or not do something

In social occasions when asked what you think of something that was reported in the news?

You have to give off the cuff replies often with no preparation

The better you become at Topics the better you will become at impromptu speaking and once you are comfortable with doing Topics delivering a prepared speech will seem easy by comparison.

It is all about acquiring extra confidence

Topics is not about scaring participants

It is not a competition between the Topic s Chair and the speaker who should choose Topics which are interesting but not too difficult and not try to catch the speaker out.

We will cover clubs Topics where we just get experience in getting up and saying anything and working towards acquiring confidence.

How to do Topics for ClubAdobeStock_137819938_Preview

 1) In the immortal words of Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army – Don’t panic

Easy to do, it can be nerve wracking, you go dry in places you don’t want to like your mouth and wet in others like forehead and armpits!

I recall my first experience at doing Topics in Newport, I used to hide behind a chap called Ian in our club, he was over 6` 4” and by hiding I would avoid being picked to do a Topic. Indeed I was in the club over 6 weeks before I eventually agreed to do my first Topic

I still get nervous but nerves now generate energy to enable me to do the Topic better

Do not worry; we have all been there; it is a supporting environment here and everyone wants you do to well. So take a few deep breaths and stay calm and collected.

Remember that nothing horrible is going to happen to you

2) Take your time

There is no need to rush, collect your thoughts and resist the urge to blurt out something as soon as you get to the stage.

You can draw out the Salutation or repeat the Topic question to give yourself a few more seconds to think.

Repeating the question can help you clarify it in your mind; I have seen many people misunderstand the question and wander off Topic without realising what they are doing.

There are some who advise to go with the first thought that enters your head- it may work but in my experience can quickly lead to a dead end – I think it best to take your time.

You may have the urge to fill the silence which feels awkward but take your time in walking to the stage; don’t sprint.

In competitions I have witnessed some pedestrian perambulations as the speaker walks to the stage!

I once considered wearing a plaster cast on my leg to feign injury and allow a very slow walk to the lectern!

The timing will not start till you start speaking or make an overt gesture. Remember that when you are up here time seems to flow slower than when you are sitting down.

Think of the film the Matrix! Slow motion!

What seems like an eternity is in reality just a few seconds so relax, take maybe 10 seconds  and don’t worry about the silence just look at the audience; look confident and make eye contact around the room; they will think you are assured and will be full of anticipation.

3) Ignore the question sometimes!

In your club sometimes you may not have the requisite knowledge to answer a Topic.

Ask yourself one thing. What is the underlying question – do not get hung up on the precise wording of the question; ask yourself what is the more universal question here.

Say you are asked “What is the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you at work?

Maybe you have had such a marvellous career that nothing has gone wrong or you cannot remember; unlikely but possible.

In my case I would not know here to begin there have been so many such episodes.

The underlying question is; what is the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you.

Maybe you can think of a something embarrassing that happened when on holiday and transfer the story.

For example when on holiday you had food poisoning and had acute diarrhoea, though I am not sure if diarrhoea can ever be cute.

Transfer the terrible tale to the office and how you had to run out of an important meeting every five minutes before the final catastrophic denouement but obviously we would not want to hear too much detail!

You may say, but it did not happen that way!?

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story?!

However there is a caveat; be truthful about the core of what you are talking about! Do not betray the audience’s trust!

You cannot pretend that you had cancer and recovered when you did not, that would be going too far.

Look at the underlying question and match it to something that you can talk about.

Now there may be occasions when even transference not possible so you have 3 choices:-

Firstly you can stand here and fumble, I would not advise that, it is uncomfortable for everyone.

At one club Topics were 3 minutes which for novices is far too long – elaborate on what I have seen, the embarrassing silence; the fumbling for words and awkward demeanour.

Secondly you can be up front and say I will have to stop because I know nothing more about the topic and sit down or in my club we talk for 2 minutes but I tell everyone especially novices that they should not be bound by the lights; if they run out of steam just call it a day; I recall visiting another club and a first time visitor was cajoled into doing a Topic and she was silent for about 30-40 seconds which was excruciating for everyone, sadly she never came back.

Thirdly and whilst this will not assist you in competitions; in your club you are only concerned about gaining the experience of saying something and maybe getting to the allotted time so say anything.

I have seen this done many times in Newport and often it can be really successful and amusing; indeed we had one ex member who virtually never talked about the Topic and spent the first minute thanking us all for being here and commenting on the weather!

Sometimes he thanked the Topics master for such a marvellous Topic saying how delighted he was to be given it and to have the opportunity elucidate us all on the Topic because we should all know more about it, but the waffling continued and we were none the wiser.

That was a bit extreme because he did it all the time but it was very entertaining and often one of the highlights of the evening.

For example; if you were asked to tell us about a book you have read recently. Maybe you have not read one in the last few months or like me have forgotten what you read so tell the audience about a film instead.

You could say that you thought “Pride and Prejudice” with Colin Firth was a terrific film and explain why you thought, great locations, superb acting, marvellous plot and then conclude by saying; that would make a great book!

4) Segmentation

How do you fill the 3 minutes which can seem a long time when you are up here?

I have spoken many times and run out of steam only to find when the Timekeeper announces times that I have only spoken for 90 seconds.

It helps by breaking it into chunks; several ways of doing this.

Rule of 3:- break into 3 main points to justify your opinion or reinforce it.

E.g. my best holiday ever was to Switzerland and there are 3 reasons why.

I love the food, I loved the scenery especially the amazing coastline!!, I loved the people and briefly elaborate on each part

Counterpoint: For example; DO YOU AGREE WITH SPEED LIMITS ON THE MOTORWAY have opposing arguments: – some people think this and others think that; one minute each, then summarise

Part- present- future: If the question was: “Would you like to go base-jumping off a skyscraper?”

You could answer it by saying when I was a young person it did not exist as a sport but I would have said go ahead, amazing, I could fly like Superman.

Now I would don’t do it, it is far too dangerous, I have a wife and kids and a guinea pig to think about.

But when I am in my dotage I may say; I wish I had done it after all and not led such a risk averse life, the most exciting thing that ever happened to me was getting a 7 letter word playing Scrabble

6 honest serving men: what, why, when, how, where and who

E.g. favourite holiday – what was it, why did I go there, when did I go, how did I travel, where did I stay, who did I meet?

By season:-  If the question was “What is your favourite way to relax in your spare time?”

You could split it into four.

Spring – cycling;

Summer –swimming;

Autumn –walking in the hills and woods;

Winter –skiing.

You get variety and can easily think of something to say on each hobby.

You could probably invent your own ways to break up the speech into segments

5) Think about your personal narrative

There is a myth that you cannot prepare for Topics. OK they can ask you anything.

However anything is a whole lot more manageable than you think.

You can departmentalise questions by genre or category.

Whenever you have or think of one of those moments in your life which was powerful; write it down

It is not an essay so do it in one short and succinct sentence; we are just remembering something powerful

Think about the spectrum of your life because really when we are doing Topics questions we are sometimes answering the universal plot types that are common in all fiction and literature

There are questions about love; about loss, about pain, redemption, sorrow, uncertainly; joy, and happiness and so on

Think about those moments in your life when you were not sure what the right thing to do was; about that moment of unbridled joy when you passed a difficult exam; maybe the day you lost something, such as when your dog died.

Just write it down, once sentence, but not judge or censure yourself. Build up a small file.

Come back to them and reflect on them, maybe change them add detail more to them and you will have a whole bunch of powerful experiences have which are instant stories.

Just add water to them and BOOM instant Topics and if you organise them by category with a little bit of practise very quickly you will think what is the underlying question I just heard and which of my personal narratives fits.

Suppose question is “What would you do if you won the Lottery?”

This is a question about hope or opportunity.

We all have things in our lives which are about hope or opportunity so take the personal narrative and transfer it into the question will answer it in terms of winning the lottery.

For example I would love to have the opportunity in going on Virgin Galactic`s proposed space ship and to take the family too. That would be incredible but the cost would be utterly prohibitive; £250,000 per person but winning the Lottery would resolve that problem; so I would talk about that.

Personal narratives are one of the best devices; everybody has a story to tell, you will have a great speech file for future use.

However anecdotal speeches in competition will lead to losing marks so should be avoided.

6) Have a message

One factor which in the eyes of many judges helps any speech including Topics stand out is to have a message.

Great stories have a purpose.

We are delivering more than speeches; ideally we will deliver a message; maybe make people change how they see; feel and think.

Try and make that shift and the audience will appreciate it.

Look back at your personal narrative and try and work out what the message is. As an example with my hope to travel into space with my family it would be to something really special and memorable.

When people look back on their lives in most cases they do not reflect on what cars they owned or furniture they bought but what experiences they had and the message here would be that an exceptional shared family experience is something worth treasuring.

So what is the message you want to share; keep it succinct and you may have a powerful ending.

It is about connecting with people, reveal a bit about yourself and  let the audience take away a little bit of you.

Clearly some Topic subjects may not lend itself to this.

At a club meeting last year I was given a very large multi-coloured umbrella and the topic was “Tell us about your umbrella”.

I must admit I could not think of a message then but the obvious one is about PROTECTION though I do recall the ending of my Topic when I envisaged being in a fight and brandishing it like John Steed from the Avengers and shoving the pointed end of the umbrella somewhere where the sun doesn’t shine.

It was an interesting ending which got a laugh but maybe not quite the message I wanted to share.

7) Try not to UM and AH

If you feel an UM coming on just stop speaking for a second

Try to eradicate the superfluous language such as SO, YOU KNOW, LIKE etc

Toastmasters have an UM and AH counter.

8) Use a strong Clear Voice

Make sure everyone in the meeting can hear you, do not shout, practise voice projection at home and aim your voice to the back of the room.

Try and develop variations in pace and volume.

9) Try not to speak too quickly

Nerves make us gallop along so consciously slow down your rate of delivery.

Try to use pauses.

You all know how effective and powerful pauses can be…………..long pause………………..……..don’t you!

10) Use gestures

You will not be holding any notes in your hand so you will be free to make meaningful gestures which enhance your talk but be careful not to wave your hands about in a distracting manner.

Having said that if you are concentrating on thinking of how to keep speaking it can be extraordinarily hard to think of gestures too and most people do not which is why you will stand out if you can master this.

Practise in front of a mirror or record a speech on camera.

11) Make eye contact

Try to look at various people in the audience so that everyone feels you are including them in your presentation.

My first ever Topics at National – I was not placed I was so scared I looked at the ceiling and made no eye contact with anyone.

12) Construct your speech

Easier said than done by try to construct your speech so that you have a strong introduction, a logical development of your ideas and if possible, a powerful finish.

Go out on a bang not a whimper.

People tend to remember the start and ending of a speech more than the middle.

13) Have some energy!

Put some of your vitality and exuberance into it.

Why others would get excited about your answer unless you are excited too, show some energy and passion.

Last night I went to an awesome concert and saw one of my favourite bands who I have liked since I was a teenager; I felt young again despite my arthritic joints….……. but I was never any good at rolling joints (DELIVER THIS TWICE ONCE BORINGLY AND REPEAT WITH GUSTO).

Audiences love speakers who show reveal a bit about themselves or show passion and enthusiasm.

Audiences are good at meeting you halfway; whatever you put out they will put back and more.

So take a risk, show the passion and energy but maybe don’t admit you rolled joints.

14) Be eccentric

Some of the best Topics are where speaker avoids a serious or conventional answer. Just think of how funny some of our Topics sessions have been; the more absurd or ludicrous answer the funnier it is and we tend to enjoy those Topics which have an element of humour.

At last years` National; the Topic was TIME, I managed to come 2nd and my speech was factual and possibly a bit dry whereas James McGinty took on a radically different approach by being light hearted, irreverent and brilliantly funny and was a worthy winner.

Humour always goes down well but often the humour can arise unexpectedly in a Topic; one could learn some witty one liners or jokes to insert into a Topic; I have tried that but I tend to forget them so rarely get a chance!

Last year at a club meeting  I ended up doing a Topic on Transistors in electronic circuit boards; a rather dull subject so I pretended at one point to be electrons going one way then positive charges going the other way. It was unusual but it made some people smile and I like to think that it enhanced the speech.

15) Be prepared do some research!!

Read and study.

The more you read the more you know and something you have read about may crop up in a Topic.

Look at a list of Topics ( there are lots on the Internet) and think about them; maybe 5 minutes a day, it may seem like swatting but it really works and is not time consuming, you can do it when out walking, in a queue , in fact anywhere.

Maybe note the Topics asked at the club; write them down and think how you would have answered them.


It could be your favourite book; film, song, country to visit, colour.

Who would you invite to a dinner party and why

What is your most annoying habit?

If you could go back in time which year or age would you go back to and why

Is a little white lie ever OK

Is Money a blessing or curse?        

OK I admit that the list is endless and you cannot think of everything but it helps; there may be a link or common thread to something you have considered.

16) Know when to stop

Try not to ramble through a long conclusion; recap your answer and the main points of your speech and try and finish with a punchy ending

17) Keep doing Topics

Keep practising; the more you do the less nervous you will become, the easier you will find it and the more you will enjoy it do not be shy; if necessary beg or maybe bribe the Topics Chair to give you a Topic.

18) Smile and Enjoy it

If you get stuck try smiling at your audience; maybe not like Gordon Brown but do try it is very relaxing for speaker and listener but above all try and enjoy the whole experience.


If that seems like a lot of things to think about when you only have seconds to prepare you are not alone.

I would advise you choose which technique you like best and watch and learn from others and like trying to learn to juggle start with two rolled up socks and not on a unicycle with chainsaws and flaming torches.

My initial suggestions:-

  • Write down some personal narratives
  • Try standing for 10 seconds before speaking even if you know exactly how you are going to start.
  • Do this to get used to it in order to prepare yourself for those occasions when you are not sure how to start
  • Add more Topics subjects by thinking of them and add them to your repertoire; try 10 minutes every day; safe environment, give yourself a random topic and practise in front of a mirror and see if you can keep going for 2 minutes.