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Sep 05

Public Speaking: Table Topics Tips

I’ve been thinking about one of my favourite forms of theatre – the Commedia dell’ Arte and I think there are some important lessons for us to take away for our table topics sessions at Toastmasters.

Brief bit of history; in Western theatre there have been two traditions, the scripted and memorised and the improvised. In the scripted and memorised tradition would fall playwrights such as Moliere, Shakespeare, Wilde and numerous more modern examples such as Patrick Marber, Frederico Garcia Lorca and Mark Ravenhill.

The improvised tradition essentially died out during the eighteenth century leaving ancient memoirs, some prints and some scenarios. The Commedia dell’ Arte was an Italian form of theatre that was largely improvised using stock characters and outlines of plays. The companies would have performed Pastorals, Fantasies, Tragicomedies, Tragedies and, importantly, Comedies. Essentially the Commedia would have performed comedies and other plays performed by skilled professional actors.

Each company of Commedia actors would’ve worked together for years and predominantly performed the same characters throughout their careers. By doing that they would’ve have acquired a stock of jokes, dialogue exchanges and various other bits of routines and bits of business also known as Lazzi. These would then be slipped into the scenario as it was being acted out. So the style of theatre was more prepared improvisation rather than being purely spontaneous.

So what can we learn from Commedia?

Fundamentally we can have a stock supply of successful jokes – either ones that we’ve sourced or spontaneously come up with before and remembered – quotes, routines and so on.

This is a perfectly legitimate thing to do as long as the line or joke that you use is neatly interwoven into the speech. In the terms of the Contest Rules you gain the most points for smoothness of your Speech Development. So if your topic is about holidays you can’t suddenly throw in a joke about horror movies because your speech development won’t be smooth.

But you can certainly draw upon a pool of pre-prepared or pre-memorised material as long as you can easily weave them into your table topics speech. Remember you must find a way to answer the question or topic posed to you.

This is something that you can certainly use outside of Toastmasters for any situation where you are called upon to “say a few words”. But as always you need to practice, practice and practice some more. Go to as many table topics sessions as possible. Get yourself a mentor, preferably someone who has competed and won at Division or District level and ask them for advice.