Pathways in WordPress for Toastmasters

Here is a look at how I plan to support Pathways speech project signups in WordPress for Toastmasters. This should be sufficient to allow a club that has started on Pathways to manage its agenda using the software and for club officers to do some basic tracking of member progress through the program.

Since Pathways is not yet implemented in my district, I took the list of projects from a PDF document that outlines the paths and levels. My understanding is many projects will continue to be 5-7 minute speeches, but in some cases a single project may require multiple speeches (and some may not be speech projects at all).

I set things up so a VPE, or members reviewing their own progress, can see the list of speeches in each path and level and match it against the program guidelines. Eventually, it should be possible to build on this foundation with a better understanding of how the Pathways program works.

I’m looking for feedback on whether this approach makes sense.

Texting Toastmasters to Confirm Roles, Fill Openings. Also: View Agenda with Contact Info

A time saving tip for club leaders and meeting organizers is to confirm meeting participation using SMS text messages to their mobile phones, which tends to work better than email and is quicker (for both of you) than calling.

WordPress for Toastmasters can streamline this process by sending an email summary of an upcoming meeting agenda, with contact info for each of the participants, to your mobile phone. This video shows me viewing that information in the Gmail app on my Android phone and clicking on the mobile phone numbers of the members I want to contact. By pressing and holding for a moment, I get a popup menu that allows me to choose whether I want to call or use SMS (send a text message).

If you use the automated meeting role reminders feature, WordPress can be set to send an email reminder to each participant several hours or days before the time of the meeting. The Toastmaster of the Day also receives a complete summary of the agenda with contact information for each of the participants, plus a listing of all the members who have NOT been assigned a role and might be available.

On the website, you can view this same information by going to the Agenda menu for a specific meeting and choosing Agenda with Contacts.

Agenda with Contacts menu item

This will give you a view of the agenda that includes contact information. If you want to use the SMS messaging trick, you can click “Email to me” and then view the message on your phone.

Agenda with Contacts assigned roles
Agenda with Contacts members without an assignment

Note that for the SMS messaging trick to work, members must have filled in their mobile phone number in their member profile. You can also edit the phone numbers listed in their profiles. For U.S. phone numbers, +1 will be added at the beginning of the mobile number for the US dialing code (necessary for the automatic dialing to work). Numbers outside of the U.S. should be entered with the international dialing code (Example: +44-555-12-12-1234).

Members who will be out of town or unable to attend meetings for some period of time can set a temporary “Away Message” to be displayed next to their contact info as a signal that they do not want to receive calls or texts until after their return.

Set Away Message link in Member Access widget
Setting a message with an expiration date
Away Message showing on the contacts list.

The “Away Message” shows up on the emailed version of the contact list and also on the member directory listing on the website (assuming your club includes that on its website).

Adding Custom CSS Through the WordPress Customize Utility

This tip is aimed at club webmasters who already have some skill with web design or have an ambition to learn. The club websites hosted at toastmost.org are meant to be usable by Toastmasters without previous web technology or design skills, but I appreciate that others come to the experience knowing HTML (the language for structuring web pages) and CSS (the language for specifying fonts, font sizes, font colors, and other design parameters).

Part of the WordPress for Toastmasters solution is a theme called Lectern that, in addition to supporting a standard Toastmasters approved logo banner, specifies the fonts and general layout of the website. It has the advantage of adhering closely to WordPress standards, including the flexibility to resize pages when viewed on a mobile device.

WordPress includes a utility called the Customizer (look for the Customize link on the black bar at the top of the screen when you’re logged in as the administrator) that allows you to change basic layout parameters such as the background colors. There is also a utility that allows you to add some custom CSS that will override the defaults set in the theme.

Here is an example of a snippet of code added to change the styling of the club name, as displayed in the website banner.

Adding custom CSS

Making this work understands some understanding of how CSS works, but you can find a million tutorials on the web if this is something you want to learn. In the example above, I’m changing the font-family specification for h1 (the top level headline) within the section (div) of the page with the ID #toastmastersheader.

You can view the default CSS for the current release of Lectern here:

https://toastmost.org/wp-content/themes/lectern/style.css

This entire project is open source, and I would welcome contributions from web developers and designers who would like to collaborate on improving it. Meanwhile, the Customize utility gives you a lot of freedom to tweak the appearance of a site to your own taste.

 

Editing Signups for Future Dates

For the VP of Education or other officer recording offline signups in the online system, there are a few different ways of navigating to future dates where you need to record information.

  • Clicking on the top Edit Signups menu link will take you to the editing form for whatever meeting you’re currently looking at. Below that, you will see a listing of other dates you can view. Click on any of those dates to view the agenda in editing mode.
  • The sidebar widget shows the next few dates, and you can click “Show More” to see a longer listing. (The number of future meetings shown is configurable by a site administrator).
  • If your site includes a Calendar page (in the example below, it’s labeled meetings), you can use the links on the calendar to navigate to any date.

If you land on any event listing, clicking “Edit Signups” will display the editing form.

Here is the show-and-tell version

 

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!

Adding a Customizable Agenda Layout

Club leaders who want a different look for their meeting agenda than provided by my suggested design can now take matters into their own hands, particularly if they know (or are willing to learn) HTML and CSS coding.

Until recently, there were two agenda layout options, “plain” and “sidebar”, with sidebar as the one I have been promoting by default. The agenda layout with sidebar gives you a sidebar on the left hand side of the page to use for information like the club mission, notes on upcoming district events, and a listing of club officers.

Now, there is a 3rd option, “custom,” on the Toastmasters settings screen in WordPress. When you select “custom,” a new document named “Agenda Layout” will be added to the listing under RSVP Events. You will also see a link on the Toastmasters settings screen labeled “Edit Custom Agenda Layout.”

When you edit this document, you will have access to the basic HTML structure of the agenda, with placeholders showing for the data that gets pulled from the database. Beneath the content editing box, you will also see a place where you can alter the CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) code used to style and format the content. You will be starting with essentially the same layout as “sidebar” but can alter it however you would like.

Here is an example of a layout with a different header image:

customizable-agenda-result
Custom header image for agenda

and here is what the Agenda Layout document looks like in the WordPress editor:

customizable-agenda-editor
Customized agenda layout in the editor

If you toggle the Text tab of the editor to see the underlying code, you will find I used a simple table layout to separate the sidebar content from the main agenda content (roles and who is filling them).

The bracketed codes are placeholders known as shortcodes in WordPress jargon. These pull in the database-generated content that will be used to fill in the details for a specific meeting agenda.

[tmlayout_club_name] – pulls in the club name, using the website title. You could delete this and just type in the name, since you’re customizing this specifically for your club.

[tmlayout_meeting_date] – displays the meeting date.

[tmlayout_sidebar] – displays the sidebar content

[tmlayout_main] – displays the main agenda content of roles and assignments

You can make some basic changes to the structure and organization of the agenda by for example changing the table layout or by replacing the table cells with divs and aligning those divs with CSS. It helps to have some knowledge of CSS, but you may be able to puzzle out some details by sight.

For example, this block of code —


body, p, div, td, th {
font-size: 12px;
line-height: 1.3;
font-family:"Times New Roman", Times, serif;
}

— defines the base font size for most of the text on the agenda. By changing 12px to 14px or 18px, you could make the font larger.

Or to change just the paragraphs within the table cell for the agenda listing, which has an id of “agenda”, you could do this:


#agenda p {
font-size: 16px;
}

When I first experimented with changing the page banner, it didn’t come out right because I added the image into a div with an id=”banner” that had a fixed height, and the new image was larger. I solved that issue by eliminating the div tag.

At least one person who contacted me specifically wanted to change the banner at the top of the agenda, so I hope this capability will be useful.

Whatever changes you decide to make, be prepared to experiment before you get it right. Good luck. If you come up with a design you are proud of, let me know — maybe your work can be the source for a new, improved default agenda layout for others.

If you do change the HTML structure, keep in mind that some HTML coding works better in the context of the feature that allows you to download the agenda to Microsoft Word. That is one of the reasons I used table formatting to separate the sidebar from the rest of the agenda, as opposed to divs with CSS positioning.

Note: For those hosting their own websites, both RSVPMaker and RSVPMaker for Toastmasters must be upgraded for this feature to become available.

Theme/Words of the Day on the Agenda

This post was prompted by a query from someone asking how to add an editable field for a meeting theme and words of the day to the agenda.

This is one of those features in the Toastmasters software for WordPress works the way  it does because it answered a specific need for my home club that may not be exactly the way others would want it to work. Those also tend to be the relatively poorly documented features — I’m trying to do better! — and may evolve over time as I get a better understanding of what other clubs want.

But here’s how it works so far, using the example of Club Awesome.

Every week, we include a blurb about the theme and words of the day at the bottom of the printed agenda.

themewords-agenda

In the editor, that is set up with this code (showing the editor in Text mode)

themewords_shortcode

The code is [rsvpmaker_upcoming themewords=”1″]. There is no popup editor for it in the WordPress Visual editor like there is for the role setup tags, but it is represented as a placeholder image in the visual editor.

On the front end of the website, you can edit the contents associated with this field at the same time that you may be assigning members to specific meeting roles.

themewords-editing

In our club, the VP of Education usually picks the meeting theme and assigns a couple of words of the day (we have a contest for best use of one of the words). Making this field editable as part of the same process as assigning meeting roles is easier than making the change in the WordPress editor.

The “agenda notes” codes on the agenda fill a somewhat similar purpose, except we typically use them for content that stays the same from week to week. I think of these as “stage directions” — in the example above, you can see “Toastmasters of the day gives out the awards,” which is a standard part of how we close out the meeting.

The theme and words of the day, on the other hand, are different every week.

TODO: Make this component easier to customize, for example by providing a way of changing the headline to something other than “Theme/Words.” Any other requests?

Email List Integration for Your Toastmasters Club

WordPress for Toastmasters supports several options for sending email to your membership, particularly for the purpose of collaborating to fill openings on the agenda. This article specifically discusses integration with Mailman, an open source mailing list management utility often included with web hosting accounts. When you add member accounts to the website, the email addresses will automatically be added to the mailing list. Email addresses will automatically be removed from the list when user accounts are deleted.

This allows you to write to an address such as members@mytmclub.org and have your message automatically sent to all club members without the need to look up their individual email addresses. I find it particularly useful for forwarding on information received from the district level, such as details about upcoming conferences, contests, or training events. Optionally, you can also establish a second email list just for officers.

Here is an example of a message sent this way, with the club name added to the subject line in brackets and a footer added to the body of the message with mailing list info.

Sample mailing list message.
Sample mailing list message.

Note: This feature is not enabled by default with the free websites I have been offering on the toastmost.org domain because I haven’t found a good way to automatically provision these accounts. The section of the administrator’s Toastmasters settings screen related to mailing list setup features is not even displayed on your accounts for that reason. However, I can set it up for you upon request.

If you are using the WordPress for Toastmasters software on your own hosting, check to see if your host supports Mailman. For example, if your web host uses the Cpanel utility for site management, the Cpanel mailing list function will take you to this setup page for creating a Mailman list.

Mailman list setup in Cpanel
Mailman list setup in Cpanel

After creating the list, click on the Manage link to go to the Mailman administrator’s dashboard. From here, you can further customize your list settings.

How Mailman Works

By default, any list member can send messages to the whole list. Any message received from an email address not on the list will be held for moderation. This helps prevent the list becoming a more efficient way of sending spam. However, you can designate a list of email addresses not on the list from which messages should be accepted.

You can designate multiple list administrators and list moderators with the authority to approve messages that are held for moderation.

Moderation tends to be an issue with members who have multiple email addresses, for example a personal email address, a work email address, and an address assigned by the Toastmasters district organization (for example, to an Area Director). If the list receives a message from one of those valid email addresses, you can approve it and add it to the “Accepts” list (messages from this address should be accepted in the future) at the same time.

Here is what that looks like:

Approving a message and adding the sender to the "Accepts" list (email address is checked and "Accepts" radio button selected).
Approving a message and adding the sender to the “Accepts” list (email address is checked and “Accepts” radio button selected).

Setup for Automatic Sync with Mailman

To keep the membership list consistent with the Mailman mailing list, want to record a few key settings on the Toastmasters settings screen in WordPress.

WordPress will post updates to the list almost exactly as a user would. For example, in my example of a list hosted at toastmost.org, the url for general options is …
https://toastmost.org/mailman/admin/voice_toastmost.org/general

… and the url for viewing the member list is …
https://toastmost.org/mailman/admin/voice_toastmost.org/members

What we’re going to record on the settings screen is the first part of that address, before the words “general” and “member”

Copying the root url for Mailman
Copying the root url for Mailman

We then record that info on the Toastmasters settings screen, along with the mailing list email address and the account password.

Mailman entries in Toastmasters settings.
Mailman entries in Toastmasters settings.

Once you have saved this information, you should be able to click on “Add current members to mailing list” to make the program sync for the first time with the email addresses of your organization’s members. Check the Members screen in Mailman to verify that it worked.

In addition to being used behind the scenes to keep the lists in sync, the account password information will be displayed to logged in members who have officers rights on the WordPress dashboard. This allows them to log in and make administrative changes manually, such as adding and removing email addresses not handled by the automated process.

Recommended Mailman Settings

You may have to experiment to find the settings that work for your club, but here are some that have worked for me.

General Settings

Add any additional list administrator / list moderator addresses. It helps to give more than one person this authority.

Prefix for subject line of postings

[Club Voice] in the example above. Defaults to the list name, so voice@toastmost.org would be just [Voice] by default

Where are replies to list messages directed?

“This list” if you want replies to automatically go to everyone. Otherwise, “Sender” so replies only go to the sender (unless the recipient clicks “Reply All”)

Send monthly password reminders:

No

Send welcome message to newly subscribed members

No (or if Yes, be sure to customize the message)

Send mail to poster when their posting is held for approval? 

Yes

Maximum length in kilobytes (KB) of a message body. Use 0 for no limit. 

0

Privacy section -> Sender Filters

List of non-member addresses whose postings should be automatically accepted. 

This is where you can enter a list of alternate email addresses for members, such as a work email for someone who is on the member list under their personal email address.

Content Filtering

Should Mailman filter the content of list traffic according to the settings below?

<p”>No (unless you have trouble with inappropriate content being sent, you probably want to allow members to send file attachments and other content this might interfere with)

A Note on Security

Mailman is a separate piece of software, very established but not terribly sexy. It gets the job done. You should understand I have a limited ability to customize it. The integration method I’m using is very basic and posts the application password with each transaction. The risk of posting to a url on the same server may not be all that great, but ideally you should be posting to an encrypted version of the url (https rather than http).

Setting up encryption on your website is less complicated and expensive than it used to be, thanks to the Let’s Encrypt project to distribute free SSL digital security certificates. If your host uses Cpanel, check to see if Let’s Encrypt is enabled for your account or ask your host if it can be turned on for your account.

I actually used this feature unencrypted on the website for my home club for years and never had a problem, but your mileage may vary.

New: Random Assignment of Roles

When filling the gaps on the agenda for a particular meeting, you can now get the software to randomly assign members who have not taken a role to fill each opening.

Here is how that looks:

Randomly assign members to roles.
Randomly assign members to roles.

You will see the “show random assignments” link in both the edit signups and recommend modes of the agenda editor. When you click that link, the software will automatically plug members who have not been assigned a role into the open slots. Note that the software also displays some clues as to how recently the member has attended a meeting and how recently the member has filled that particular role. You have the opportunity to change the assignments or recommendations before submitting the form. If someone hasn’t shown up in months, you might think twice before counting on them to fill an important role.

In the editor’s edit signups mode, submitting the form will assign members to roles. In the recommend mode, the member receives a recommendation that they take the role and must confirm before that role is firmly assigned to them. I’ve learned that some clubs rely more on volunteers, while others dictate what roles users will take in upcoming meetings, so the software tries to support both styles.

I have received a few of requests for this feature, which apparently exists in some other software for Toastmasters clubs. This feature is available on toastmost.org websites and included with version 2.2 of the open source version, RSVPMaker for Toastmasters. It may still require more fine tuning.

You can try it on the demo site (demo.wp4toastmasters.com user: member, password: member).

Also new in this update, you can now change the number of future meetings to be displayed on the signup sheet from the default, which is 3. If you go up to 5 or 6, you will probably want to print the page in landscape rather than portrait orientation. This wouldn’t work well for my club, which has a fairly long list of roles, but might for some others. This was added on request of one particular VPE.

Webinar Replay: Getting the Most Out of WordPress for Toastmasters

The video below is a replay of a webinar held on August 31, 2016, broadcast via YouTube Live. Although some people complained of technical problems during the live event, the playback should work for you just like any other YouTube video. Farther down on this page, you can see some of the comments and questions that were posted during the event (and you can add your own).