Online Voting, Vote Counting for Toastmasters Contests

As part of the planning for a mini-webinar contest at Online Presenters Toastmasters, I cooked up a tool for online voting intended to help both the judges and the Chief Judge / Ballot Counter team compile the results very quickly. This should be of particular interest to clubs that meet online or allow members to attend online. I can see potential for it to be used in a traditional club (or area/division/district) contest as well.

The software is bundled with the latest release of the WordPress for Toastmasters solution, but I’ve also made a version of it available independently (see below).

As the judges are voting, contest organizers can watch the votes roll in on a dashboard that updates every few seconds until everyone has voted:

scoring dashboard
What you see when all judges have voted.

Here’s a video demo of the voting process:

Having some sort of online voting tool strikes me as essential for an online club, where working with the printed ballot forms is awkward. A certain amount of scanning in and emailing forms for speaker and judge eligibility may still be necessary, particularly for an official contest, such as the Video Speech Contest that Toastmasters International makes available to online clubs and other undistricted clubs. But doing that with the actual ballots seems crazy, when all the judges are sitting in front of a computer and can easily enter their votes into an online system.

With online voting, we can let the computer do the math for tallying up the judge’s scores for each contestant and producing a final ranking when all judges have voted.

Online Presenters is piloted this with an unofficial webinar contest. This allowed our Chief Judge to focus on verifying that the computer-generated results are correct. He also provided the judges with alternate ways of contacting him to register their votes if the computerized system should fail.

If you’re using the dashboard in combination with a WordPress for Toastmasters event agenda, you will find a link to the Contest Scoring Dashboard under the agenda menu.

contest menu
Item on the Agenda menu

The setup process goes like this:

  1. Choose the contest you’re going to be running. Pick from the list of standard contests or define your own unofficial contest, as we did with our webinar event.
  2. Either enter a list of contestants or pick a role from the agenda to track as people sign up, so your contestants link will be in sync.
  3. Enter a list of judges and designate one as the Tiebreaking Judge.
  4. Optionally, add a list of members (other than the website editors and administrator) who should have access to the main contest dashboard. For example, your chief judge and ballot counter for the event.
  5. Set the speaking order, either manually or by allowing the software to automatically shuffle the list of contestants.
  6. Prior to the start of the contest, send each judge and his or her personalized link for the online ballot. Also send the link for the Timer, if you will be using the online timing setup.

Since not everyone uses WordPress for Toastmasters, I’ve provided an alternate way you can get access to this tool independently.

Create Contest Page


Give your page a name, such as Area Contest or Video Speech Contest

A few other notes:

  • The requirement to sign your ballot: In an official contest where you want to eliminate any question about whether the online votes are legitimate, I suggest having the judges fill out and sign the paper ballot also, take a picture with their phone and email or otherwise send it to the ballot counter (who can then verify it matches what was submitted online). Or get a ruling from some authority that the online checkbox can be counted as a signature.
  • Use outside of online clubs: In a club that does not meet exclusively online, you might still allow some judges to participate from a remote location via teleconference and vote this way. If only a minority of judges are participating this way, you might not use the software to tally the final result.
  • In person voting on laptops or tablets: For the past few years, I’ve used a Google Sheets spreadsheet on my iPad to tally my scores when acting as a judge, even though I had to record my final vote on a piece of paper. Some contest organizers might choose to encourage use of this system even by judges voting in person. You’ll have to consider whether that makes the identity of the judges too obvious (they’re the ones with the tablets).

Tracking Planned Absences Through the Agenda

Something people have been requesting for a while is an easy way for members to signal that they will miss a specific meeting. Here is what I’ve added:

Planned Absences button and listing on the signup form.

If you place this widget at the bottom of your signup page, members can let the club know they plan to miss the meeting in question by clicking the Planned Absence button. Planned Absences that have been recorded are listed right above the button, along with any “Away Messages.” This information is only displayed to logged in members.

Away Messages, which have been supported for a while now, allow you to signal that you will be missing meetings for some extended period of time (weeks or months) — it’s a message with an expiration date.

Clicking the Planned Absence button works better if I know I’m going to miss, not the next meeting, but the one after that. It’s more precise.

To enable this feature, you must add a placeholder code to your meeting template. I think it works best at the very bottom, as shown below.

Adding the required code in the agenda editor.

The code is:

[tm_absence]

Or, if you want this information to appear on your agenda:

[tm_absence show_on_agenda="1" ]

The absence / away message information also shows up in a few other contexts, such as the drop down list you use to assign members to roles.

Absences indicated in the dropdown list for assigning roles.

Automatically Suggest Assignments: Are You Sure?

One powerful feature of the WordPress for Toastmasters software that was introduced a few months ago has had some unintended consequences for a number of clubs, including my own. From now on, if you take advantage of the “Suggested Assignments” mode (which previously showed up on menus as “Assign”), you will get this warning:

Are you sure? warning

Even though I had previously made some changes designed to make sure anyone who used this feature understood what it did, it apparently wasn’t as clear as it ought to have been. If you use this feature routinely, you can turn off the warning as a personal preference. Otherwise, you must confirm you know what you’re doing before you can proceed.

In Suggest Assignments mode, the software fills open roles on the agenda based on a list of members without a role. The choices are semi-random but also take into account factors like who has not filled that role recently. As the person assigning roles, you have a chance to review those choices and make changes, but they will be recorded when you click Save Changes.

Unfortunately, I’ve gotten several reports of meeting organizers getting into this mode by mistake, intending to make a single change to agenda, and belatedly realizing they had made a whole batch of assignments they hadn’t intended to make.

The Recommend mode of the agenda editor is similar to Suggest Assignments, except that it kicks off an email telling the chosen member they have been recommended for a specific role. The assignment is not actually recorded until and unless the member accepts. That can be a good way of nudging people to take a role, rather than telling them to do so.

Suggest Assignments is meant to be helpful to clubs whose leaders proactively assign members to roles, rather than waiting for them to volunteer. This feature was was a specific request from a couple of clubs, but it’s not necessarily appropriate for everyone. In fact, it’s now turned off by default. In the Random Assignments section of the Toastmasters screen under settings, you will see options to either turn on Suggest Assignments, turn it on selectively for site Editors, Managers, and Administrators, or leave it turned off.

 

You can also choose to hide the link advertising the Multi-Meeting Role Planner tool, which allows members to book speeches and other roles for multiple future meetings at once, The display of that link on the agenda is still turned on by default, but you can now turn it off if you prefer.

Let me know if you agree this is an improvement. As always, I welcome other suggestions for how the software can be made better.

Thanks,

David Carr, WordPress for Toastmasters project leader

Keep WordPress for Toastmasters Free: Seeking Small Advertisers, Major Sponsors

You can help keep the club websites associated with the WordPress for Toastmasters project free by advertising on the toastmost.org network of sites or introducing me to potential sponsors.

Keeping the software free is not a problem — I periodically upload the open source code to a repository on wordpress.org, and anyone with the technical skill to configure a self-hosted WordPress website can take advantage of it. That part is easy. However, what is more useful to most club leaders is having access to a free service where a non-techie can sign up for a club website account, invite in members, and immediately begin using that site for marketing/recruiting and to organize their agenda. That was the motivation for establishing the toastmost.org site, which is the “software as a service” incarnation of WordPress for Toastmasters.

As more clubs sign up for the toastmost.org service, the costs of server, storage, and security upgrades are starting to grow. That means the free service needs to be paid for somehow.

The ideal sponsor would be a business or nonprofit that offers services to speakers (I’ve been talking to some of the major online speaker directories) or products and education for people interested in professional development. Toastmasters International itself is unlikely to help because they already subsidize the Free Toast Host service, which they consider to be a good enough option. To provide an alternative, we’ll have to find alternative funding.

sidebar ad
Basic sidebar ad

I will accept advertising for as little as $100 for a one-month placement in the sidebar ad slot that appears on each of the free sites. See (see wp4toastmasters.com/support/).

My preferred option would be to secure a “gold” sponsor or possibly an exclusive sponsor willing to make a 1-year commitment and partner with me to build the audience for the service. Continue reading “Keep WordPress for Toastmasters Free: Seeking Small Advertisers, Major Sponsors”

Upgrade Your Toastmasters Club Website to WordPress for Free

The free club website offer from the WordPress for Toastmasters project is back! Fill out the signup form at toastmost.org, and you can be adding content to your website and setting up your online agenda and meeting role signups within minutes.

Toastmost.org websitesWordPress for Toastmasters is an open source software project that adds Toastmasters-specific branding and functionality to the world’s most popular blogging and web content management platform. You get access to professional, world-class tools to use in your club marketing and recruiting efforts, combined with the ability to manage club agendas, invite members to sign up for roles, and track member progress through the educational program.

This is a volunteer project led by me, David F. Carr, based on software I originally created for my home club, Club Awesome Toastmasters, and decided to share with other Toastmasters club leaders.

I continue to seek advertisers and sponsors to underwrite the costs of this project, particularly related to the toastmost.org club website hosting offer. See Support the WordPress for Toastmasters project.

The software itself is available for free, but you need a WordPress-powered website to host it on — and not everyone who could make use of the software is enough of a techie to set it up on their own. Toastmost.org simplifies the initial website setup. Creating the web content that shows what makes your club special is still up to you.

Keep This Service Free to Toastmasters Clubs

Running the toastmost.org service does cost money, which is why I briefly switched to a 6-month free trial offer for new sites, with the idea that clubs would pay a subscription fee after that period. However, I am going back to a free offer because I understand free is the only price that makes sense for most clubs.

I am currently experimenting with a couple of affiliate advertising programs that may help offset the costs of running the service as it grows. My preference is to secure direct advertiser or sponsor support. If you have a product or service that would be of interest to Toastmasters around the world who use this service, please consider becoming a sponsor. See Support the WordPress for Toastmasters project.

Distinguishing Between Agenda Signup, Assignment and Recommendation Modes

In addition to the default signup mode displayed to all members who log into the website to take a role on the agenda, there are a few different editing modes that can be used by meeting organizers. The new notification messages that appear above the menu are designed to distinguish between them more clearly — after a couple of members of my home club complained about being confused.

agenda notifications
Hey, make sure you know what you’re doing!
  • Edit Signups – the meeting organizer sees drop-down lists with the name of all members next to each role. Used to fill open roles and record changes. Great for recording assignments for volunteers who signed up by on a paper signup sheet or by giving instructions over the phone or by email.
  • Assign – Same as above, but with random assignments in the open roles.
  • Recommend – Also shows random assignments, but instead of being recorded immediately, members chosen for a role will receive an email message asking them to confirm they accept the assignment.

The “random” assignments are plugged into open roles. They aren’t entirely random because the choices are biased toward members who haven’t taken that particular role recently. But the most important thing to understand is that they are not actually recorded on the agenda. That’s what the text in red is supposed to clue you into.

Random assignment (unconfirmed)
Last attended: 2017-11-03 Last filled role: Jun 17 2016

In other words, this tool is supposed to help you fill your agenda, but I don’t want you to be confused about which roles have actually been filled.

You can either accept the suggestions or change them, but nothing will be recorded until you scroll to the bottom and click Save Changes. In Recommend mode, the role will not actually be reserved for that person. If the member wants to accept, they can do so with one click on the link in the email notification — provided that no one else has signed up for that role in the meantime.

There is also “Recommend instead of assign” checkbox that shows up in the Edit Signups / Assign modes, allowing you to mix the two modes. In other words, you can assign a list of volunteers to roles and also send role recommendation messages to a few other members. When you click the checkbox, a text entry box appears that allows you to add a message like, “Hey, looks like you haven’t spoken in 6 months – how about next week?”

Tell we what you find useful and how to make it more useful.

Switching Agenda Templates for a Club Contest

Setting a standard meeting template is one of the keys to using the WordPress for Toastmasters software productively. In addition, it can be helpful to have different templates for other types of meetings or events — with a club level contest as a prime example.

If you will hold your contest during one of your regular meeting times, here is how you would switch from your standard meeting template to a contest template.

Switch to contest template

That “Switch Template” option on the menu is new, something I realized was needed to make this option either to find. The other way to get to the “Apply Template to Existing Event” option is through the Dashboard -> RSVP Events -> Event Templates.

To make this more useful, you will want to create event templates that reflect how your club runs its contests. See Sample Contest Agendas: International Speech and Table Topics and Sample Contest Agendas: Evaluation and Humorous Speech for examples.

Sample Contest Agendas: International Speech and Table Topics

For those in the process of organizing a club level edition of the International Speech Contest and Table Topics Contest, here is a follow up to my post on Sample Contest Agendas: Evaluation and Humorous Speech. See also: Switching Agenda Templates for a Club Contest.

These are sample agendas you can use for a club contest where you want to give members an opportunity to sign up online. Copy the text from either of the examples below. Before pasting it into the editor, make sure the WordPress editor is in “Text” mode rather than “Visual.”

Your event templates are listed under RSVP Events -> Event Templates. Click the “New Template” button next to the page title to add a new one.

A sample template called “Contest” is pre-installed by default and includes all the different types of contests, as if they were being held on the same day. You can always start with that one and edit it down to what you really need. The examples I’ve posted here are based on one we’ve used for the contests at my home club, where we for example do Table Topics one day and International Speech on another.

When you toggle back to Visual mode, you will see the placeholder images representing the roles and agenda notes, allowing you to edit them further with the popup editor windows.

In the editor’s visual mode, you will see these represented with placeholder widgets for each role or note on the agenda.

A Table Topics contest template.

A member who is logged in will see the corresponding opportunities to take any open role:

Table Topics contest signup form

The sample agendas are intended as a starting point. You can modify them to taste.

Table Topics Agenda

[agenda_note agenda_display="agenda" strong="" italic="" size="" style="" alink="" editable="" time_allowed="0"]Sgt. at Arms calls the meeting to the order.[/agenda_note]

[agenda_note agenda_display="agenda" strong="" italic="" size="" style="" alink="" editable="" time_allowed="0"]President or Presiding Officer introduces the Contest Master.[/agenda_note]

[toastmaster role="Contest Master" count="1" agenda_note="Introduces supporting roles. Leads the meeting." time_allowed="0" padding_time="0" indent="0"]

[toastmaster role="Chief Judge" count="1" agenda_note="" time_allowed="0" padding_time="0" indent="0"]

[toastmaster role="Timer" count="2" agenda_note="" time_allowed="0" padding_time="0" indent="0"]

[toastmaster role="Ballot Counter" count="2" agenda_note="" time_allowed="0" padding_time="0" indent="0"]

[toastmaster role="Table Topics Contestant" count="12" agenda_note="" time_allowed="0" padding_time="0" indent="0"]

[agenda_note agenda_display="agenda" strong="" italic="" size="" style="" alink="" editable="" time_allowed="0"]Contest Master opens the awards ceremony.[/agenda_note]

[agenda_note agenda_display="agenda" strong="" italic="" size="" style="" alink="" editable="" time_allowed="0"]Chief Judge announces the winners.[/agenda_note]

[agenda_note agenda_display="agenda" strong="" italic="" size="" style="" alink="" editable="" time_allowed="0"]Announcements and conclusion.[/agenda_note]

International Speech Contest Agenda

[agenda_note agenda_display="agenda" strong="" italic="" size="" style="" alink="" editable="" time_allowed="0"]Sgt. at Arms calls the meeting to the order.[/agenda_note]

[agenda_note agenda_display="agenda" strong="" italic="" size="" style="" alink="" editable="" time_allowed="0"]President or Presiding Officer introduces the Contest Master.[/agenda_note]

[toastmaster role="Contest Master" count="1" agenda_note="Introduces supporting roles. Leads the meeting." time_allowed="0" padding_time="0" indent="0"]

[toastmaster role="Chief Judge" count="1" agenda_note="" time_allowed="0" padding_time="0" indent="0"]

[toastmaster role="Timer" count="2" agenda_note="" time_allowed="0" padding_time="0" indent="0"]

[toastmaster role="Ballot Counter" count="2" agenda_note="" time_allowed="0" padding_time="0" indent="0"]

[toastmaster role="Videographer" count="1" agenda_note="" time_allowed="0" padding_time="0" indent="0"]

[toastmaster role="International Speech Contestant" count="6" agenda_note="" time_allowed="0" padding_time="0" indent="0"]

[agenda_note agenda_display="agenda" strong="" italic="" size="" style="" alink="" editable="" time_allowed="0"]Contest Master opens the awards ceremony.[/agenda_note]

[agenda_note agenda_display="agenda" strong="" italic="" size="" style="" alink="" editable="" time_allowed="0"]Chief Judge announces the winners.[/agenda_note]

[agenda_note agenda_display="agenda" strong="" italic="" size="" style="" alink="" editable="" time_allowed="0"]Announcements and conclusion.[/agenda_note]

Updates to the Agenda Sign Up and Editing Modes

New dropdown menu lets you navigate to future forms in either signup mode or edit mode. The screenshot also highlights the new planner link, which members can use to sign up for multiple future meetings on one screen.

There are couple of different ways you can update the agenda when signed in as a member, and the latest WordPress for Toastmasters update tries to make it easier to switch between them. One of these is particularly oriented toward using the site from a mobile phone.

The different views are:

  • Signup – the default where you click Take Role on any open role or Remove Me to withdraw from a role
  • Edit Signups – the mode you use as a meeting planner (Toastmaster of the Day, VP of Education, or other club leader) assigning people to open roles.
  • Assign – a variation on edit mode where random / suggested assignments are shown (random assignments explained in more detail below)
  • Recommend – like Assign, except instead of being assigned to the role, members will get an email asking them to confirm acceptance
  • Planner – a new tool that shows your current assignments and open roles you can take for multiple future meetings.

One of my fellow club members who has been using this software for years now told me she was confused when trying to navigate our website on her phone and using the dropdown menu under Edit Signups to switch from meeting to meeting. She found it awkward that it opened in editing mode when she was simply trying to sign herself up for a future meeting.

As shown above, the dropdown menu has been changed to show each date twice with the editing mode listed second. As a meeting organizer, I find it useful to switch between meetings in editing mode (particularly when recording entries from a paper signup sheet), but that shouldn’t necessarily be the default.

This should also make the agenda a little more smartphone friendly.

agenda on phone
Menu on an Android phone

Assign, Recommend, and Random Assignments

The random assignments feature is intended as a feature to help a VPE or other meeting organizer fill the agenda, while also trying to steer members toward a role they may not have filled recently (both for variety and to help them fill educational goals such as Competent Leader).

Here is the regular editing mode:

Editing Mode
Editing mode lets you see open roles

If you click Assign or Recommend, or the link for displaying randomly suggested assignments, you will get the view below with the suggestions highlighted with red text. These are not confirmed until you save the form.

Randomly suggested assignments

The difference between Assign and Recommend reflects how different clubs run their meetings and organize their educational programs. Some clubs tell members what role they will fill on what date, while others are more comfortable asking than telling.

In the Recommend role, the member gets an email suggesting that they take a specific meeting role, and the message includes a link they can click to accept that role. The role remains open until and unless they click to accept (or write back to the meeting organizer to confirm, in which case the organizer can then assign them to the role).

The Assign Mode is basically the same as Edit Signups, but with the random assignments feature turned on. If you accept the randomly assigned suggestions and save the form, those meeting roles will no longer be open — they will be assigned to the people you chose.

Choose Your Own Adventure: New Multi-Meeting Planning Tool

Here is an upgrade I have been planning for some time: an easier way of booking meeting roles multiple weeks in advance, instead of one meeting at a time. This also makes it easier for you to plan your progress through the program so that you’re speaking on a regular basis (depending on how quickly you are trying to advance) while also doing your part to keep the club healthy and meetings well-organized.

Here’s an overview:

If you are a club leader, and your club relies on self-service meeting role signups as an important part of how you organize your agenda, getting members to do a better job of planning ahead can take some of the pressure off. You may still need to coach members not to be too greedy about grabbing speaking slots week after week (or being too timid about volunteering to speak). Occasionally, you may need to reassign members, or let them know you have changed the agenda for a special meeting that does not include the role they originally signed up for.

Overall, though, I expect this to be helpful to my clubs. As a VP of Education or a Mentor, you might consider sitting down with a club member you are coaching and advising them on what roles you would like to see them sign up for.

Formula for Making Recommendations

Over time, I hope to make the software smarter about the recommendations it makes. Here is how it works so far:

  • Looks up any current assignments for the member for each meeting.
  • Looks up unassigned roles for each meeting.
  • Shuffles the unassigned roles into a random order.
  • Before making a suggestion, considers whether the member is eligible to fill the role (for example, whether they have given three or more speeches before signing up to evaluate). Tries to avoid repeatedly assigning members to the same role.
  • Displays the currently assigned role or the suggestion as the default choice, along with all the other open roles for that meeting.

Try it and let me know what you think.