On Table Topics and the Job Interview

by Africa Hands, Head Editor, INALJ Kentucky

On Table Topics and the Job Interview

bio photoNot too long ago I was a member of a local Toastmasters club. You may have heard of Toastmasters – the speaking and leadership club that helps you get more comfortable speaking in front of an audience and facilitating meetings. It’s an international club so if honing your speaking skills is on your 2013 resolution list, definitely check it out.

One part of the Toastmasters meeting is Table Topics which is sometimes harder and more stressful than delivering a prepared speech. With Table Topics one person serves as the Table Topics Master and has a series of random questions which are posed to several members. Questions asked are at the discretion of the Table Topics Master. Members have about two minutes to answer the question. Think two minutes is a cinch? Think again. Caught off-guard, this can be the longest two minutes of your life. But a thoughtful, carefully crafted response is golden.

Table Topics exercises are a great primer for the job interview. These days you really have no clue what you’ll be asked in an interview. Beyond the standard africaky“Tell me about yourself” and “Why are you interested in this position and company”, interviewers have a wide range of questions to ask and some questions are just plain bizarre. Employing some of the strategies for answering Table Topics questions can also benefit you during an interview. In the February 2010 issue of Toastmaster Magazine, readers were given 12 frameworks for turning the tables of Table Topics.

  1. Bridging – build a bridge from what you don’t know to what you do know based on your experience
  2. Reframing – redefine or rephrase the topic into one you can and would like to answer
  3. Dialogue – reason out loud with your audience by asking rhetorical questions
  4. Quotes, jokes, and sayings – buy time to think while drawing in the audience at the same time
  5. Monodrama – relive an experience with the audience, drawing in the audience with a bit of drama
  6. The Far Side – exaggerate or embellish your response
  7. Moderator – take the middle road or be noncommittal rather than take one side of an issue
  8. You Came From Outer Space – take an otherworldly approach responding not as someone from 2013 planet Earth (possibly useful for children’s librarian interviews)
  9. Transcend Time – respond as you’re another person from another time (gauge your audience, this could be handy for a children’s librarian interview)
  10. Play Devil’s Advocate – argue the opposite of what you would normally
  11. Everyone Loves a Mystery – add a bit of suspense, a twist, or shock to your response
  12. When All Else Fails, Say Nothing – use clichés and non-sensical small talk (unfortunately this may happen by mistake; it’s certainly not a recommended strategy to use purposely).

I’d definitely try bridging, reframing and moderating, and possibly the monodrama depending on the question and circumstances. For problem-based questions, the monodrama may work to your advantage as you want to accurately replay the scenario and your role in solving a problem. Drawing in the audience with drama may not be a bad way to engage the interview panel. Just don’t make your answer too long and unwieldy.

Bridging and reframing are similar concepts with the key being to present what you do know when asked about something you don’t know while staying somewhat on topic and honoring the question. Say you’re asked a creative interview question like, “Give us a discography of your career thus far”. What if you don’t listen to music? You’re an NPR junkie and a film buff. Reframe the question from what you don’t know (music) to what you do know (films) and give a filmography of your career thus far. You’re being just as creative, offering information that’s not on your resume, and showing a bit of personality.

Answering as a moderator is an excellent way to show the interview panel that you’ve thought about a topic and see different ways to approach the topic. Perhaps you’re asked about eBooks in the library and you personally hate eBooks or are in favor of all print books being removed from the library. Of course, you can certainly express your truthful opinion. Or you can address the question from both sides not choosing one or the other but discussing the benefits of both eBooks and print books.

Choosing one framework over another depends on the company or library you’re interviewing with and the interview panel. When practicing for your next interview, try out bridging, reframing, the monodrama, and the moderator with different interview questions. With practice you’ll be more comfortable and confident in an interview setting, prepared to take on even the weirdest question by transcending time or playing devil’s advocate. Want to see Table Topics in action?  Visit a local Toastmaster club in your area; unless you want to participate, visitors aren’t usually asked to do Table Topics. Which framework would you use in an interview? Let’s chat on Twitter using #inalj or in the LinkedIn group.

Turning the tables on Table Topics (Feb. 2010) by Craig Harrison, DTM. Toastmaster Magazine, 76(2), 22.


Naomi House

Naomi House, MLIS, is the founder and publisher of the popular webzine and jobs list INALJ.com (formerly I Need a Library Job) and former CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) of T160K.org, a crowdfunding platform focused on African patrimony, heritage and cultural projects. INALJ was founded in October 2010 with the assistance of her fellow Rutgers classmate, Elizabeth Leonard. Its social media presence has grown to include Facebook (retired in 2016), Twitter and a LinkedIn group, in addition to the interviews, articles and jobs found on INALJ. INALJ has had over 21 Million page hits and helped many, many thousands of librarians find employment! Through grassroots marketing, word of mouth and a real focus on exploring unconventional resources for job leads, INALJ grew from a subscription base of 20 friends to a website with over 500,000 visits in one month. Naomi believes that well-sourced quantity is quality in this narrow job market and INALJ reflects this with many new jobs published daily. She has also written for the 2011, 2012 and 2013 LexisNexis Government Info Pro and many other publications in the past decade. She presents whenever she can, including serving on three panels at the American Library Association's Annual Conference in Las Vegas; as breakout presenter at OCLC EMEA in Cape Town, South Africa; as a keynote speaker at the Virginia Library Association annual meeting; at the National Press Club in Washington DC; McGill University in Montreal, Canada; the University of the Emirates, Dubai, MLIS program and the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Naomi was a Reference, Marketing and Acquisitions Librarian for a contractor at a federal library outside Washington, DC, and has been living and working in Budapest, Hungary and Western New York State. She spent years running her husband’s moving labor website, fixed and sold old houses and assisted her husband cooking delicious Pakistani food. She is preparing to re-enter the workforce and is job hunting. Her husband is now the co-editor of INALJ, a true support!  She has heard of spare time but hasn’t encountered it lately. She pronounces INALJ as eye-na-elle-jay.