New Online Timing Lights Tool

WordPress for Toastmasters has a new online timer tool that was particularly designed for online clubs, although it could also be useful for brick-and-mortar clubs who would like to use a laptop or a digital display in their meeting room to display timing indicators. Online Timer is a new option on the Agenda menu.

You can also use the timing tool independent of using WordPress for Toastmasters agenda management here https://wp4toastmasters.com/?timer=1

The advantage of the integrated version is it can pull speech timing requirements from the agenda. This tool is new and may need more work — feedback is welcome. You can try the integrated version of the timer using real speech projects from an Online Presenters meeting here https://op.toastmost.org/rsvpmaker/online-presenters-meeting-2017-11-6/?timer=1

Here’s a quick demo:

And is here is what it looks like on a mobile phone:

The online timer is based partly on another open source software product, Toastmasters Timer by Guy Ellis, who did a lot of the hard work in terms of getting the math right for timing calculations. I’ve added some things to make it suitable for use by an online club.

Whenever the Timer hits the stop button, the time for that speech or other activity is logged on the left hand side of the screen. If you include the speaker’s name, either manually or by clicking one of the buttons with the name of a speaker (pulled from the agenda), their name will be shown above the time record. One of the things we’ve done at my Online Presenters club is enter the times into the chat in Zoom, and having the times automatically logged should make it easy to copy and paste them. I think it could be worth using this tool for that purpose alone, even without the screen sharing.

Log of speech times

The online timer can also be set up to sound a chime when each timing benchmark is past (useful because speakers sometimes lose track of the video feed from the timer — at least my club has had that issue with the Zoom video conferencing platform).

Update: The instructions for getting the automated chime to sound in an online meeting are included below, but I’ve had second thoughts on whether it’s more trouble than it’s worth. I think the biggest value of this tool is to fetch speech times from the agenda, make the green/yellow/red indicators appear like clockwork, and produce a log of the times for each speaker.

Here is an example of how this is meant to be displayed in Zoom.

Timing feed as a thumbnail image in Zoom.

In addition to the details shared in the video, there were a few other details I needed to get right to make it work properly for online screen sharing.

One thing that threw me is that the timing digits (if displayed) appear backwards to me when I see my own image in Zoom. However, the numbers are readable to all the other participants. This has something to do with the fact that we’re all used to seeing ourselves in a mirror, so Zoom displays a mirrored image of the feed from our own webcam, and this same effect is applied to any image I project using Webcam software. (An earlier version of this blog advised people to use a mirroring effect in SparkoCam to “correct” for this effect, but that would only make it look right to me and wrong to everyone else).

If you want people to hear the chime at green / yellow / red, you need to set SparkoCam to capture system sound.

Adding system sound as an audio source.

And also tell Zoom to use SparkoCam as your audio source, rather than your microphone.

Making Zoom listen to SparkoCam audio.

Note that with the settings I’m showing here, you would have to switch the audio feed back to your microphone the next time you want to talk. By selecting system sound and no other audio source, I’m effectively muting my microphone. (It’s supposed to be possible to add your microphone feed to the SparkoCam audio as well, but I don’t have that working yet.)

Again, this is all experimental, so give me your feedback if you discover a better way.

Update: just figured out it’s also possible to do a picture-in-picture effect with the desktop feed in SparkoCam if you don’t want your picture to go away. You click the + button in the Webcam panel to add an additional source you want to include with your webcam video. Then turn on the desktop sharing.

Picture in picture effect with timing tool

BTW, I show the option to select a part of your desktop in the video tutorial above partly because I could not get a couple of the other options to work. SparkoCam on Windows 10 crashed repeatedly when I tried the “Application window” and “Follow cursor” options.

Configuring Automated Role Reminder Emails

Here is how you can set the software to send reminder emails like this —

Example of a reminder to the General Evaluator

— based on a message template that looks like this.

Reminder email templates

I covered the setup for this in a recent online meeting “office hours” session (replay below), and am sharing some additional documentation after the video.

 

The first step for setting this up is to turn the feature on in the Toastmasters settings screen. You can set up to two different reminder intervals, such as 2 days before and 2 hours before in the example below.

Turning on the automated reminder feature.

The setup for the reminder email templates is handled through the Notification Templates screen in RSVPMaker (the part of the software that handles event scheduling and registration). To make it easier for Toastmasters to find their way to this screen and others tucked away in different menus, I’ve provided a links from the Club Website Administration widget on the main dashboard.

Reminder templates link on the dashboard.

There are several default message templates you can customize.

Role Reminder – generic message template that is used if no more specific one has been supplied for the specific meeting role. Simply reminds the member of what they committed to doing on a given date, prompting them to let someone know if they will not be able to fulfill that duty.

Toastmaster of the Day – sends the TOD a version of the agenda that shows assigned and unassigned roles with contact info for the members who have taken a role. At the end, it lists the members who have not been assigned a role with their contact information. The idea is to give the TOD a complete kit of info for confirming roles and recruiting people to fill open roles.

Speaker – reminds the speaker to provide a speech introduction and specify the speech project, if that info has not already been entered into the website.

Evaluator – lists the speakers, the other evaluators, and the general evaluator with contact info.

General Evaluator – same as above. Intended to help the general evaluator clarify which speakers are assigned to which evaluators and organize their portion of the meeting.

Norole – The message sent to everyone without an assignment, including the agenda and a link to the agenda page on the website where they can sign up to fill an open role. (This is only sent if specified on the Toastmasters settings screen).

You can customize all of these message templates and add additional ones for other roles off the standard list used by the software —

‘Ah Counter’,
‘Body Language Monitor’,
‘Grammarian’,
‘Humorist’,
‘Topics Master’,
‘Table Topics’,
‘Timer’,
‘Vote Counter’

— or custom roles for your club.

For example, the Online Presenters Toastmasters club I started has a reminder template for the Timer role with tips about how to perform it in a video conference environment.

The template codes or “shortcodes” for adding the date to the subject line or importing the meeting agenda are listed at the bottom of the Notification Templates page. There is also a link you can click to get a preview based on signups for an upcoming meeting.

The default templates are necessarily generic, but there is nothing to stop you from adding club-specific information like telling speakers who need to cancel that they should call your VP of Education, rather than just posting an update on the website.

I encourage you to make it serve your needs. As always, give me feedback with your ideas for making it better.

 

Recommended Setup for Online Toastmasters Clubs

WordPress for Toastmasters aims to be the best website solution for all Toastmasters clubs, but it can particularly serve the needs of online clubs — if you set it up right.

A few issues of particular concern to online clubs:

  • Dealing with timezones
  • Registering guests
  • Sharing your online meeting link

Dealing with Timezones

Online club leaders need to get good at time travel, or at least chronological navigation.

A traditional Toastmasters club attracts members from the local community, all within the same timezone. An online club, or a club that allows online participation, has a potentially global audience. That means dealing with timezones and confusion over timezones.

Some online clubs deal with this by publishing their schedule according to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) or an offset from GMT like GMT -5. Personally, I’m not great at timezone math beyond the bounds of the U.S., and I suspect others are worse.

Software to the rescue!

Here is how I would see that attending a hypothetical Hawaii-based online club that meets at 7 pm would mean staying up past midnight in my own frame of reference, on the East Coast of the U.S.

Toggling between timezones

To get this effect, make sure the settings in RSVPMaker (the WordPress plugin for the online calendar) specify that the timezone should be displayed as part of your event listings. You can the time format to either 12-hour clock or 24-hour clock with timezone included (10:00 pm EST or 22:00 EST).

Then also check the checkboxes labeled:

  • “Show Add to Google / Download to Outlook (iCal) icons”
  • “Show timezone conversion button next to calendar icons.”

These checkboxes also appear in your meeting templates and should be checked there as well (whatever you specify in your event template becomes the default for all the events based on that template). And we always want to make it easy for people to figure out whether our meetings occur at a time they can attend.

There is also a checkbox in the settings for events and event templates labeled “Display timezone code as part of date/time.” You may not see it if you have that set as the default for your site. The intuseended use is for cases where displaying the timezone is the exception to the rule — for example, when a brick-and-mortar club is hosting an online event.

One other handy resource for helping people do timezone conversions is the dateandtime.com website. I share links to that site in some of my event promotions, but this RSVPMaker feature has the example of being built into the website.

Note: the “Show in my timezone button” relies on a JavaScript that fetches the timezone settings on the user’s local computer. If the timezone is wrong — for example, a business traveler using hotel wifi might see a translation into their home timezone rather than their current location.

In case it’s not obvious: You must have the correct timezone specified in WordPress for the server to announce the correct time. You do that in the General Settings page of the administrator’s dashboard.

Registering Guests

My home club rarely uses the RSVP / registration feature of RSVPMaker, but my online club uses it every week to register guests.

Offline, we register guests by asking them to sign a guest book, after we’ve already gotten them in the door. Online, I find it helps a lot to have a list of the guests who may be attending ahead of time. So the website directs them to register if they would like to visit, and we send them the link to the online meeting as part of the confirmation message email.

If one of those guests becomes a member, there is a menu item under Users labeled RSVP List to Members that you can use to quickly create an account for them on the website.

Sharing Your Online Meeting Link

Getting people to attend your online meetings means getting them the link to whatever web conferencing service you use. Some clubs simply publish this on the home page, but as I mentioned I prefer that visitors register first before getting it. On the other hand, I want it to be readily available to members.

One of the ways we can do that is by including the link in the members-only view of the agenda displayed on the website and the version of the agenda we send out by email.

I can do that using “Agenda Note” widgets on the agenda template. Here’s the setup we use at Online Presenters, with the placeholder for the link at the very top of the agenda.

Setting up an Agenda Note containing the link

Agenda notes can be set to show up either on the agenda only, on the public view of the website only, or both. This one is set to show on the agenda only.

But it shows up in all versions of the agenda, such as the emailed agenda we use to remind members of upcoming meetings and prompt them to fill open roles.

The online meeting link shown in the agenda email

New: How to Request a Written Evaluation

Requesting a written evaluation

The evaluations tool in WordPress for Toastmasters has been enhanced to allow you to request an evaluation for a speech or competent leader project through the website.

This tool is specifically meant for online clubs, where members are not in the same location to exchange their books. Most online Toastmasters clubs handle this by emailing PDFs back and forth, but I find that awkward. Brick and mortar clubs might also find this handy as a way of getting people to get evaluated for their Competent Leader projects, even if they forgot to bring their book to the meeting. Besides, typing an evaluation is better for people like me with messy handwriting.

There are now four tabs across the top of the Evaluations screen: Give Evaluations, Request Evaluation, Evaluations Received, and Evaluations Given.

The Request Evaluations tab is populated with roles you have filled at recent meetings (according to the agenda), as well as other CL projects you might complete outside of a meeting such as editing a club newsletter. You choose the project, choose the person you want to email the request to, and optionally add a personal note. If you don’t choose a member to email the request to in the Send To field, the tool will still generate a link that you can share by Facebook message or some other means.

The online forms include the same prompts as you would find in your manuals, including many of the new Pathways projects. If you spot errors or inconsistencies, let me know.

Update: here is how I introduced this at Online Presenters Toastmasters.

Role Recommendations Versus Role Assignments

There are two modes in which a meeting planner can parcel out meeting roles to members: assigning roles and recommending roles. This distinction holds with or without the “random” assignment suggestion feature.

Which you use will depend on the culture of your club and how open members are to being “voluntold” to take a role, rather than volunteering for it.

You’re in assignment mode when you select either Edit Signups or Assign from the menu. The Assign option is a shortcut to turning on random assignment suggestions. When you assign a role to a member, you are reserving it for that person. The member will get an email notification that looks something like this:

assignment email
Assignment Notification

Traditionally, in my clubs the VPE (which used to be me) would use the editing or assigning role to record roles that people had signed up for on a paper signup sheet. In other words, they really had volunteered, just not on the website. However, other clubs are more proactive in having the VPE assign roles to members rather than waiting for them to volunteer. This has some advantages in terms of keeping members moving through the program and encouraging them to rotate through a variety of different roles.

When you use the Recommendation mode, you are asking rather than telling. The idea is that you can send the member a notification that makes it easy for them to confirm they will take the role (one-click confirmation). You can also include a personal note, explaining why the role would be good for them. But if they do not respond, the role will not be held open for them.

The email notification looks like this:

recommendation email
Recommended role notification asks member to confirm

The user can click that accept link and be instantly added to the agenda.

confirmation message
Confirming acceptance of a role

New Planning Tool for Semi-Randomly Assigning Members to Open Roles

Clubs who prefer to assign members to roles, rather than waiting for volunteers, or who sometimes find it’s helpful for members to be “voluntold” what they should do for an upcoming meeting, now have access to a new planning tool.

This is a new and improved version of the “Show random assignments” function introduced in an earlier release. It has been redesigned based on feedback from VPEs and other officers who said they want to be able to assign members to roles more easily several weeks in advance.

The random assignments mode is actually semi-random. The software starts by identifying all the members who currently do not have a role for a given meeting. Before picking from that list, it attempts to filter out:

  • Members who have filled the same role in one of the last 3 meetings
  • Members who are too junior (have given less than 3 speeches) to fill a role such as evaluator
  • Members who have posted an “Away Message” indicating they will be out of town on the date of the meeting

Those who clear these hurdles are then put in a pool of possible assignees, which is shuffled until a “winner” emerges. This works in both the editing mode where you are assigning members to roles and the “recommend” function where you nominate someone for a role but they must confirm before it is held for them.

randomly suggested member
A suggested random assignment

The random choices appear as suggestions, which you as a meeting organizer can override. If the member recommended by the software is unreliable, you might not want to assign them to an important role. Or you might want to pick a really excellent evaluator for a speaker who is practicing for a speech contest. On the other hand, the software may help you spread the work around more evenly and encourage members to try roles they have not filled in the past.

When you make choices manually, you will have more information available to you within the dropdown list of members, including “Away” status messages and the date when the member last filled a specific role.

random dropdown
Away status shown on the dropdown list

You will see a new option on the menu labeled Assign, which is the editing view with random assignments turned on. From the editing mode, you can also click “Show random assignments” to get this effect.

menu assign
Assign option on menu

These updates are live on toastmost.org. If you have a self-hosted site, these features will appear once you upgrade to RSVPMaker for Toastmasters 2.7.1 or later.

Roll those dice!

A couple of other tweaks in this release include:

  • A shortcode for including the signup sheet display of multiple future meetings as embedded content on the page. In WordPress, a shortcode is a placeholder for content that gets generated dynamically. Include [signup_sheet limit=”3″] in a page to get a table displaying the next 3 meetings. The limit parameter is required for this to work, but you can change it if you want a different number of meetings to be displayed.
  • New styling for the optional green-yellow-red “stoplight” display of times on the agenda. It should work better if you download the agenda to Microsoft Word. Also displays better when the agenda is printed in black and white.

How to Set an ‘Away Message’ in WordPress for Toastmasters

When you are recruiting members to take roles at a meeting or for any volunteer purpose, it helps not to waste your time calling people who are unavailable. People who are on vacation or traveling on business may also want to let others know when they will be unavailable.

Set Away Message option on the dashboard

The “Away Message” function is meant to fill this need. You will see it advertised on the main dashboard and also on the public members page (when you are logged in).

You can enter your message with an expiration date to mark when you will return.

set away message
Setting an away message

The message then shows up on the individual’s profile on the member page (shown only to logged in members).

away message
Away message on the members page

One other context where this shows up is in the Recommend feature meeting organizers can use to nominate another member to take a role (they get an email alert and can confirm with one click). If someone is out of town, you won’t want to choose them, so their status is shown next to their name.

recommend away message
Away message in the context of the Recommend a role feature

Toastmost.org Ad Prices Cut By 50%

If you have a product or service that will appeal to Toastmasters, consider advertising on Toastmost.org, a club website hosting service based on the WordPress for Toastmasters project software. The price of advertising for one month has now been cut from $200 to $100, with further price breaks for longer terms.

Advertise on Toastmost.org

Ad Type

Advertise to Toastmasters leaders in the clubs who take advantage of the free website offer at toastmost.org (example: demo.toastmost.org). Ads appear in the sidebar of the page.

WordPress for Toastmasters is a free, open source software project that adds features like agenda management to WordPress, the world’s most popular blogging and web content management platform. Toastmost.org is a hosting service from Carr Communications Inc., the company of project founder and chief programmer David F. Carr, DTM. The software is compatible with any WordPress web hosting service, so the advantage of Toastmost.org is to provide support directly from the author of the Toastmasters-specific software.

WordPress for Toastmasters receives no financial or logistical support from Toastmasters International, but the Toastmasters-branded theme Lectern has been reviewed for conformance to Toastmasters branding requirements.

Relaunching Toastmasters Club Website Hosting Service

The Toastmost.org Toastmasters club website hosting service is relaunching as a free 60-day trial offer, after which club leaders must decide whether upgrading to a paid plan makes sense for them. More details at toastmost.org.

The hosting service is intended as a convenient way for club leaders who aren’t necessarily techies to set up and configure a site that takes advantage of the WordPress for Toastmasters software. Originally, it was offered as a free service to be supported by ads and donations, but that income stream proved inadequate. Putting the Toastmost.org service on a more solid business plan is important to ensuring servers and services will be upgraded as needed for reliability, performance, and security.

If your club signed up for the free club website offer, you will continue to get that same deal. I may try to lure you into a voluntary upgrade, but I will honor the terms you signed up for. I thank you for your feedback on improvements to the WordPress for Toastmasters software, and I’ll keep trying to make it better and easier to use.

Going forward, I will work on sharpening the branding distinction between WordPress for Toastmasters, the free open source software project, and Toastmost.org website hosting, a service of my company, Carr Communications Inc., based on that software.

As a business venture, I my current ambition for the hosting service is merely to get it to cover its own costs as it grows. If you have one of the free sites, or are hosting a site elsewhere, consider making a donation if you see the value.

Meanwhile, the point of the WordPress for Toastmasters project is still to share online marketing and club management tools I originally created for my home club, Club Awesome, recently used when starting Online Presenters, and have shared with a small but growing group of other clubs. You can support the project helping with documentation, design, or programming (depending on your skills) or offering training at a district event.

Thank you for your interest in this project and your support for keeping it going.