Offensive table topics

Fear. Adrenaline. Focus.

My state of mind as I await my first table topic in months.

I’m visiting a new club and have finally got myself on the list. Now I’m waiting to speak off-the-cuff about a topic that is yet to be announced. It could be as simple as “tell us about your last holiday” or something abstract like “red or blue?”. I’m desperately hoping for something simple to ease me back in.

My topic is announced.

“Tell us about the conspiracy theory that the US government planned the September 11th attacks.”

What! How am I supposed to answer that? What a mine field of potential offence.

All attention is on me. I have exactly one second to decide what I’m going to say.

I buy some time by repeating the question then manage to fumble through a story about a government plan to blow up a Starbucks going wrong. I head back to my seat hoping I haven’t alienated myself for trivialising such an emotionally charged event.

I’ve heard of other nightmare topics. My mentor was challenged with “Tell us about your favorite swear words” in an environment where it would be completely inappropriate to swear.

Formulating topics is difficult. I discovered this when I prepared a topics session on Quantum Physics. You want to strike a balance between having fun and stretching the speaker. Throwing in a potentially offensive subject adds an extra dimension of difficulty to a topic. Speakers must take care to avoid causing offence. If they slip up or misjudge a joke they could seriously damage their reputation.

Even when seasoned professionals tackle risky subjects they run the risk of being misinterpreted or taken out of context.

Generally speakers at Toastmasters avoid subjects relating to sex, politics or religion. I don’t think this should be an ridged restriction, however I do think it is unfair to force people to talk abou them. If a speaker chooses to incorporate something socking or emotionally charged it should be on their terms.

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One Comment

  1. Martin
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    The silver lining of a table topic on 9/11 is that it’s bound to increase your hit count now that you’ve blogged about it!

    In this particular case I’d be tempted to talk about general conspiracies associated with the month of September (Where do all the squirrels go? Do ice cream vans fly south?) to try and ease the tension, but given that it’s obviously playing for laughs I don’t think it quite matches what I’m about to describe:

    Personally I’d see table topics like this as a big opportunity to practice *not* answering the question, but making it seem like you did. I see this as quite a high level skill personally – throughout all of my education I’ve been trained to ‘answer the question’ but in some ways that’s the easy part when it comes to speaking, or it turns out to be a short or dull answer.

    Sometimes repeating the question to play for time works against you by pinning you down – why not paraphrase the question a bit, and in doing so make the question slightly more palatable? Or use the same words but with a different emphasis?

    This is assuming that Jeremy Paxman isn’t the table topics master though…

    The real master of this art is the one who goes unrecognised in practising it. No-one wants to be accused of rambling off-topic.

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