There perhaps is nothing worse than being asked a table topics question you know nothing about. It could be a question on a local news item you’ve missed, or a knowledge area you’ve conveniently avoided your entire life because you loathe it… unfortunately, these tend to bite back when you least desire it!
The best method of addressing this problem is in the prevention: read the news every day; whether it be in the form of your local newspaper, reading the news online or watching the news on TV each night. Try to gain a light appreciation of as many fields as you can. Particular problem areas include those outside your age bracket; for example, a younger person may not be quite as versed at ’60s music or past Presidents / Prime Ministers; conversely, an older person may be quite naive to relatively new fields such as computing or the Internet. Any attempt you can make to overcome limitations such as these will serve you well not only in Toastmasters, but in business and social circles.
Prevention won’t always save the day, however; and there often will be circumstances where you must ad lib. You have two options: First, you can fake your way through the question. Answer the question in such an overly technical manner that not even someone well acquainted with the subject would dare oppose you. This method works best when the topic is on something that facts can easily be assigned to: anything historical, for example. Second, you may wish to make a joke out of the fact you obviously are oblivious to the subject. I recently heard this opening from an Immediate Past President: “Mr. Table Topics Master, if you possessed even an iota of knowledge about the subject you would have in fact asked me this question: …” He completely turned the table topic around, warping it into a question he could answer with ease. His response was met with laughter, and was a stunning success. Similarly, you could opt to skirt around the question entirely — nudging it every so often but never actually answering it — and concluding with a statement such as “Unfortunately, I don’t quite have the time to finish telling you about [topic]; but perhaps another day you’ll be in luck.”
Recently, a guest from another Toastmasters club astounded us with his amazing rendition of Yassar Arafat. His entire delivery was in a fake Palestinean tongue, and combined with convincing gestures enabled him to tell a story without uttering a word of English. It was a most entertaining response and a beautiful save when he was unable to think of something to say.
You may also find yourself in the situation where you (for one reason or another) didn’t catch part (or all) of the question. It is bad form to ask the Table Topics Master to repeat the question, so your only option is to use similar techniques to those outlined above and take whatever you did hear, and skew it to suit your wishes. Trying to make a joke out of the situation, but without directly informing your audience you didn’t hear the question often works well.
Fortunately, with a good set of table topics questions it is rare you will asked a question where you’ll have no idea of the subject matter. Unfortunately, not all Table Topics Masters are as friendly as that so it is certainly a wise decision to consider a backup plan!