Wordie Fun for the Holiday Dinner Table

Hoping to spark some delicious conversation around the holiday dinner table? Stacy interviews Cristy Clarke, fabulous founder of TableTopics—conversation starters featured on the “Martha Stewart Show,” on “Ellen,” in O Magazine’s “Favorite Things” issue, and now, in the world-famous Content Bureau blog …

Stacy: Cristy, it’s so exciting to interview THE queen of conversation! Please tell us why people have fallen in love with TableTopics.

Cristy: People are rediscovering how much fun it is to have a great conversation, and TableTopics—essentially, a cube of cards with a question written on each—helps us do that. It also helps hostesses relax! Our culture has put so much emphasis on serving the perfect meal, and having the perfect décor. But when people remember a holiday party or family gathering they really enjoyed, it’s probably because they had great conversations during that event, and really connected with people.

S: As marketers, we need to excel at the art of asking questions—of our customers, the field, each other. In your opinion, what makes for a successful question?

C: Reverse engineer! Ask yourself, “What kind of conversation do I want to have? What questions will help us get there?”

S: Is it true you still write most of the TableTopics questions?

C: I do. The tone, the voice, and the flavor of our questions are very much part of our brand, so I keep it very close. That being said, our questions have gotten so much better since I’ve involved others!

S: So how do you involve others in the creative process?

C: I start by making notes about what the [question] territory might be. Then, I carefully choose experts to help further refine the target. For instance, for our wine edition, we hired a wine expert. I also use a young, urban guy on certain editions—he helps me brainstorm in new directions because he’s so different from me. It’s also important to have the proper balance of lighthearted and philosophical questions. Look forward, look back. And ask fantasy questions—people love those.

S: You’ve created a number of niche editions of TableTopics—including your newest product, the “Do It Yourself Therapy” cube, which has received hilarious reviews. And you also do custom work for businesses?

C: We do. Companies give custom TableTopics editions to their employees, customers, and partners.

S: How does that work? Do sales reps sit down with customers and pull out a few conversation-starting question cards?

C: I’m pretty sure they don’t do that! But they might hand out questions that help customers have their own conversations—then associate this positive experience with the company’s brand. For example, for Scotia Bank in Canada, we created a set of questions to help families discuss the concept of savings. Everyone who opened an account got a small pack of 40 questions. The questions were fun and light—and helped Scotia Bank’s customers talk about this tricky topic.

S: You are clearly very intimate with your customers. How have you gotten closer to them since founding TableTopics in 2002?

C: I get a lot of feedback about what people like and don’t like. People email us. Retail sites like Amazon.com capture reviews of our products, plus we capture reviews on our site. I use that information to improve our products. I did change an edition once because people felt some of the questions were starting fights!

S:  Which ones?

C: Questions like: “Who is the worst backseat driver?” and “Which possession of your partner’s would you throw away?”

S: Ha! I guess those might start fights at my house, too. Speaking of fights, you show on your website a clip from Parenthood (sweet press, by the way!) where a dinner party hostess brings out a box of TableTopics and promptly offends guests who felt they were already engaged in meaningful conversation. How do you recommend gracefully introducing TableTopics to a group that needs a bit of a jolt?

C: My intent isn’t to have people use TableTopics as a game, where the hostess says, “We’re going to do this now.” It’s better to keep things unstructured and natural. Most of our customers like scattering cards around the dinner table, or hiding them under plates. When the time is right, someone might just pick one up and ask a question. You could take any one question and talk for an hour.

S: The holidays are upon us. If we’re without our trusty TableTopics, how do you recommend getting quickly past small talk and into more memorable, enjoyable conversation?

C: When you’re in a conversation, it’s about making that extra effort to go one level deeper. The best questions have no right answer. Mix fun, lighthearted questions with a few philosophical questions sprinkled in. The people you’re talking with will feel so engaged, and you’ll learn so much more about them. Just be curious! Asking good questions takes effort, but it’s so rewarding.

And on that note, friends, I wish you the very happiest holidays filled with meaningful, enjoyable conversation!

By Stacy Crinks