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).

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!

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).

YouTube Video Sharing Tool for Toastmasters

The latest update of the WordPress for Toastmasters software includes a tool for publishing speech videos to the club website, publicly or privately, and emailing out links to the videos to club members.

Using this feature is entirely optional, but it’s based on a program that has been popular with my own home club. For several years, we have made a practice of video recording speeches and sharing them with members in “unlisted” status on YouTube. This is a convenient way of sharing videos so members can see how they performed for purposes of self improvement. It also allows club members to view a speech they may have missed, such as the Icebreaker of a new member.

If they did really well, they can give us permission to share the videos publicly — and we are always happy to showcase the talent in our club. Having speech videos on the website also allows prospects members to get a better feeling for the Toastmasters experience and see our members in action, even before their first visit. See Video Tactics for Toastmasters Clubs for more details about how we record and upload the videos.

youtube-toastmasters

You will find the YouTube Toastmasters tool tucked under the Media menu on the WordPress dashboard.

Once you have uploaded your videos into YouTube, you will use this screen to do a sloppy copy-and-paste import of the titles and links from the YouTube website. I usually do this from the the listing of my own videos (https://www.youtube.com/my_videos?o=U), but it seems to work with any listing such as a a screen of YouTube search results.

You copy by holding down the mouse button and dragging it across the relevant titles and video previews as shown below.

Copy from YouTube
Copy from YouTube

Now paste into the editor window under “Paste YouTube content here” (make sure it’s in Visual mode, not Text). The pasted-in content will look jumbled, but all that matters is that you have captured the titles of the videos.

Sloppy paste
Sloppy paste

Farther down on the screen, you will see options asking whether you want to create a blog post, an email broadcast, or both. There are also a series of checkboxes next to the names of club members, which you can check to indicate who is featured in the videos. Their names will be added to the title of the blog post (also used as the preliminary subject line for the email broadcast). The resulting blog post will look something like this.

Video listing on the blog.
Video listing on the blog.

At the bottom of this post, you will see a notice that this post is members-only content. If you decide to make it public, you would edit the post to remove it from the members-only category. But these posts are marked members-only by default.

Members-only notice
Members-only notice

Anyone who tries to view this post without being logged in will see only the headline and a notice that a login is required.

youtube-login-required
Login required notice

As explained in Posting Members-Only Content to the Blog, there are a couple of sidebar widgets available to allow you to distinguish between public content (“Club News”) and members-only content. If a website visitor is not logged in, the members-only posts will not appear in the blog’s main feed.

Members-only widget
Members-only widget

You can use the same content as the basis of an email broadcast. This uses the email list features of RSVPMaker (the calendar plugin that is part of WordPress for Toastmasters). When you preview the email broadcast on the website, it will look something like this. To send the message to all club members (everyone who has a user account on the website), I would click the “Website members” checkbox and then the Send Now button.

If I see something I want to change or fix, or if I want to add a note at the top, I can click edit to revise the message using the WordPress editing tools before sending it out.

Preview of email broadcast
Preview of email broadcast

Here is that same message as it arrived in my email inbox.

Message in email inbox
Message in email inbox

To support the practice of considering these videos to be private information for club members only, I include a policy message or disclaimer at the bottom of each of these messages sharing the videos.

Video policy: speech videos are intended as a tool for speakers to see their own performances and think about how they can improve. Even though these are on YouTube, they are published as “unlisted” by default, meaning they won’t show up in search results. Don’t forward these links or post them on Facebook or in any other forum without the speaker’s permission. From time to time, we may ask a speaker for permission to use a video as part of our marketing of the club. Volunteers are also welcome – if you’re proud of a particular speech, let us know.

I’ve included some of this boilerplate language as a default, but you can modify it however you would like. If you make changes, the software will remember your settings for next time.

Note: until recently I would simply copy and paste the output from the tool into GMail and send it out to our club’s mailing list. That works, too. However, as a lazy person, I am always looking for ways to automate processes, and this saves a few steps.

Let me know if you find this useful.

Video: New Member Orientation for WordPress for Toastmasters

This latest tutorial experience covers the basic member experience on WordPress for Toastmasters, including basic tasks like changing a password, correcting contact information on the member profile, and signing up to speak or fill another meeting role.

The second part of the video shows how members can track their own progress through the program on the new My Progress screen and (if allowed) correct and update those records.

Administrators should be aware of the option to allow members to edit their own records. For example, if a speech was recorded as a Competent Communication speech when really it was out of one of the advanced manuals, you can allow members to put in the correct information. This also gives members a way of recording a speech they gave at another club.

If you are not comfortable with that option, you can have members report any corrections to the VP of Education or other club leader, who can make the change.

Setting the "edit own" option for basic members.
Setting the “edit own” option for basic members.

If you choose to turn this feature on, you would do so on the Security tab of the Toastmasters settings screen. The “edit_member_stats” security privledge would allow editing of any member’s performance statistics, but you probably want to reserve that superpower for officers and senior members. You can turn on “edit_own_stats” to allow them to correct/update their own records only.

New Spreadsheet Import / Export

The new WordPress for Toastmasters import/export feature allows you to download a spreadsheet of data including member contact information and a summary of achievements within your club. The file downloads in the standard CSV file format, which you can open in Excel and other data management programs.

You can then make corrections and import the data back into the website, or you can use this as a way of transferring your data to another web server (for example, if you move from my toastmost.org service to your own web hosting).

The import feature here is similar to the one I recommend you use to import users into a new WordPress for Toastmasters site, using the member spreadsheet from Club Central on toastmasters.org.

If you are just getting started with your new website, you might start this way:

  • Import your members using the toastmasters.org spreadsheet.
  • Download the WordPress for Toastmasters data export. This will give you a spreadsheet that contains the member’s basic contact info and a series of blank columns in the rows representing other data, such as the number of Competent Communication speeches the member has given.
  • Update the spreadsheet, correcting data such as email addresses and phone numbers, and adding a basic set of information about how far the member has advanced in the Toastmasters program.
  • Import the spreadsheet into the website to update the member records.

This is intended as a way to “jump start” your website, after which you will start to benefit from the data gathered in the normal course of business as you organize your meetings.

Updated Member Performance Tracking / Editing (Video)

Here is a look at the new tabbed interface for the reports and editor functions related to member performance reporting.

The goal of these changes is to make it easier to navigate between the  basic and advanced reports and to go from there to the editing screens (only available to those users to whom you’ve given the right to edit statistics in the system).

Also significant:

  • One-click editing of to-do items shown on the Competent Leader and Advanced Awards reports, allowing you to quickly check off a requirement that’s showing as TO DO when it should be DONE.
  • An add speech function for recording a speech that may have occurred outside of the context of a regular meeting.

add_speech