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February 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Maximizing Speaking Opportunities with Mastermind Topics

Hall Houston currently teaches at National Taipei University of Nursing and Health Sciences in Taiwan. He has a Master’s degree in Foreign Language Education from The University of Texas at Austin. He has done presentations and workshops for Cambridge Assessment and British Council. He is the author of several ELT books including Provoking Thought and Creative Output. Email:



In the world of business, some entrepreneurs conduct meetings called “mastermind sessions”, where they share information, and help each other network. During these sessions, participants are often asked to speak briefly on three topics: something that’s going well in their lives, something they need advice on, and something they want to recommend to others.

I first read about mastermind sessions in a short article on the British Council website by Natalia Moiseeva. I thought the mastermind topics would be perfect for my presentation skills class, since they are universal topics that everyone would be able to speak about. I began to explore how I could develop this idea, so that it would catch the interest of my Friday morning classes. In my version of mastermind, two students speak in front of a panel of judges who determine which student did a better job of addressing the three topics.

The primary goal of this activity is fluency practice and sharing personal information with others. The panel of judges helps students assess their strengths and weaknesses in speaking. In addition, students have a chance to reflect on how they can improve their speaking skills.

I’ve used this activity for several weeks in my presentation skills class this semester, and students have shown a great deal of enthusiasm for mastermind. I feel that it has not only added some variety to the lesson, but helped students feel more comfortable speaking in front of the class.

The following procedure explains how I use mastermind sessions in my classroom.



1. Introduce students to the format of Mastermind sessions. Explain there are three topics they need to speak about. The first is something that is going well in their lives (for example, the student’s health, relationship with parents, part-time job or hobbies). The second is a problem they need help with (for example, getting enough sleep, time management, making new friends). The third is something the student wants to recommend to the class (for example, a book, a restaurant, a band, or a store). Provide a few minutes for students to jot down their ideas.

2. Move three desks to the front of the classroom, on the side. Choose three students to sit in these desks. Tell everyone that these students are going to be the judges. Relay to the judges that they will watch two students do a mastermind, and they must choose which student performed better. Also, write several criteria on the board that the judges should use to assess the presenters. You might wish to include some obvious choices such as fluency and accuracy, but you could also add confidence, originality, enthusiasm, or creativity. Alternatively, you can work together with the class to create a list of criteria.

3. Give students a few minutes to practice their mastermind sessions in small groups.

4. Select a student to come to the front. Ask the student questions about the three topics along with several follow-up questions. (When you get to topic #2, after the student mentions his/her problem, turn to the class and invite students to offer some solutions). When the student has finished, thank him or her and get the rest of the class to applaud and cheer enthusiastically. Repeat with another student.

5. Give the three judges a couple of minutes to decide which of the two mastermind sessions was the best. When time’s up, ask the judges to announce the winner, and explain their decision.

6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 several times until at least two-thirds of the class have had a chance to speak.

7. Finally, put students in pairs to list a few things the presenters did well, along with a few things they could have improved on. Discuss with the whole class their observations, and write them as notes on the board.



1. After a few turns, you can ask the judges to sit down, and choose three different students to take their places.

2. After the first round, you can change the format, so that each time, two students stand before the class and interview each other about the three topics.

3. Once most of the class has participated, you can call on the two strongest students to have a final championship round.

4. You can divide the class into two teams, and the teams can compete for points.

5. You might consider making mastermind sessions an ongoing feature of your lessons, selecting different students each week. You might also want to change the topics from time to time.



Mastermind session: lesson in the new format by Natalia Moiseeva

How to Organize a Mastermind Session by Chris Ducker


Please check the  Creative Ways to Get Students Speaking More course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Methodology and Language for Secondary course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Teaching Advanced Students course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the How to Motivate Your Students course at Pilgrims website.

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