Is WordPress for Toastmasters Easy To Use?

The New Year’s season is a time for reflection, and here are some of my thoughts about the question posed in the title. It may be a better question for others to answer, since I am totally biased, but I’ll try. I am also fishing for ways of discussing these issues more intelligently in a webinar planned for January 19.

The WordPress for Toastmasters project is a spin-off of work I originally did to create a better website for my home club, Club Awesome, starting in 2012. I wanted a more professional quality online publishing and social media platform for my club to bring in visitors and showcase the talents of our members. With a little customization, I figured I could combine that with Toastmasters-specific functionality for meeting role signup that was as good or better than what was offered on Free Toast Host.

I created the WordPress for Toastmasters website in the summer of 2014 to share the WordPress extensions I had created with the world as open source software and as a hosted service. A lot of the features for tracking member progress in the program were added later, in response to requests from officers at other clubs.

When promoting this combination, I often describe WordPress as a web-based word processor that gives you all the tools you need to write, edit, and publish articles that can include links, images, video, and other multimedia. What you do with it is up to you, but the tools to tell the story of what makes your club special are all there.

There is no question that WordPress is a stronger general-purpose web publishing platform than Free Toast Host, largely as the result of scale — it’s used by an estimated 27% of all websites, including professional sites like the ones shown below.

Some of the professional websites built on WordPress
Mobile layout for a website using the Lectern theme.

The WordPress platform benefits from the fact that web developers from Bloomberg and the New Yorker and lots of independent programming and design consultancies contribute code to make the core software better, fixing bugs and suggesting improvements. As the web changes, for example because more people are browsing it on their phones and their computers, WordPress keeps pace.

I can take advantage of those improvements, for example by including the principles of responsive web design (layouts that adapt for display on mobile devices) in the Lectern theme for Toastmasters clubs.

Signing up for a role on a future meeting agenda and performing other basic tasks also works from your phone, at least in a pinch.

The Advantage of Free Toast Host

In contrast, the advantage of Free Toast Host is that it has one purpose: hosting websites for Toastmasters clubs. You start with a template for a generic Toastmasters club and customize it as necessary.

Because the solution I promote is grafted onto a general purpose publishing platform, there are lots of configuration options on the webmaster’s administration dashboard that may be irrelevant or distracting. I go into more detail about why it’s worth overcoming these challenges below, but first I want to acknowledge them.

If all your club needs is a basic website that has a picture of the officers on the home page and details on where and when you meet, maybe you should stick with Free Toast Host if you already have a site established there.

I think the WordPress alternative has the greatest potential for new clubs and those aggressively marketing themselves or trying to build / rebuild their membership.

Okay, But Is It Easy?

I think WordPress is easy to use, but then again I have been using it for years. I would say it’s easy, once you learn how to use it. There is a learning curve, but plenty of Toastmasters clubs have created their own WordPress blogs independently of my efforts. Typically, they use a WordPress blog as a club marketing and publishing platform they use in parallel with Free Toast Host or Easy Speak, which they continue to use to manage their agenda.

One reason it’s worth the effort to learn to use WordPress is that you are learning a transferable skill that you can also apply to marketing other business and nonprofit ventures. Because it’s a web standard, you can also find tutorials on configuring and operating a WordPress website from many different sources.

My innovations:

  • A WordPress theme (site design) that incorporates the Toastmasters International-approved website banners and the required legal disclaimer about use of their logo and trademark.
  • A set of plugins for agenda management and member performance tracking, eliminating the need to use a separate web application such as Easy Speak.
  • A recommended website structure for club blogs, with a welcome page, a blog, and a calendar for club meetings and other events.

Whether the software I have created on top of WordPress is easy to use is a separate question. This is a labor of love, but so far it’s pretty much a one-man show (I’d be happy to share credit with other web developers and designers who make contributions). As an agenda and club management platform, it’s probably not as sophisticated as Easy Speak, and people who love that software often are not tempted to switch. On the other hand, Easy Speak and Free Toast Host have their own learning curve. Club officers not previously trained on one of those two may find the WordPress for Toastmasters alternative easier to learn, or at least no harder.

You can help me make my add-ons easier to use by giving feedback. In the beginning, I only had to make the process of creating and customizing a meeting agenda easy enough for me because I was VPE at the only club that used it. Later, I came up with a set of visual widgets that make it easier for the non-technical VPE to add a custom role or a bit of stage directions to the agenda, or change the number of speakers and evaluators (as shown in this video, excerpted from a previous webinar). Many of those changes were driven by feedback from club officers, at my own club and elsewhere.

If you tell me what is harder than it ought to be, I’ll do my best to make it easier. Not necessarily easy, but easier!

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