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.

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 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.

Suspending Free Toastmasters club website offer September 1

As of September 1, I’m planning to suspend the offer of new free club websites until I can identify a source of funding to make that part of the WordPress for Toastmasters project financially self-sustaining.

The existing club websites on toastmost.org will continue to be supported, and the free and open source software will remain available for those who want to add it to an independently hosted WordPress site  (see Hosting Your Own WordPress for Toastmasters Website).

Meanwhile, I am looking for help from anyone interested in helping me come up with a workable plan to raise the funds to allow the free websites offer to reopen, or who can contribute other ideas for a path forward. Maybe this could be someone’s High Performance Leadership project?

Offering free Toastmasters club websites was always an experiment, a way of demonstrating the value of the software and making it easier for club leaders who do not consider themselves techies to set up a site. I used the multisite configuration of WordPress, together with my own customizations, to allow club leaders to register sites at subdomains such as mysite.toastmost.org. My own Online Presenters club is op.toastmost.org.

However, so far I have had no luck finding an advertiser or sponsor to underwrite that part of the project. Hosting websites does cost money, and I see the cost beginning to grow beyond what I can subsidize out of my consulting business.

There is still time to set up a free club website, if you do it within the next couple of weeks — part of the reason of this post was to give fair warning — and I will continue to work to help those clubs that have set up shop on toastmost.org to be successful with the software. Some good testimonials from leaders who have made it work for their clubs might provide the momentum needed to take this project to the next stage.

How to Display Stoplight Colors on Your Agenda and Other Agenda Styling Options

The latest release of the WordPress for Toastmasters software includes an option to show green / yellow / red “stoplight” timing guidelines on the agenda. This was a request I received some time ago from a club that had been doing something like this with a Microsoft Word template. It took me a while to figure out how to pull it off.

The stoplight option is available to anyone who wants to turn it on. When logged in as administrator, go to Settings -> Toastmasters and you will see a place to turn stoplight display on or off. See also Manually Adding Stoplight Display with a Shortcode.

The other improvements are more targeted to club webmasters with knowledge of CSS stylesheet language, making it easier to change the fonts and alignment of elements within the agenda design.

Here is an example of stoplight colors on the agenda:

Stoplight colors on the agenda

Continue reading “How to Display Stoplight Colors on Your Agenda and Other Agenda Styling Options”

Video: Technical Teardown of This Project (and Related WordPress Projects)

This video is from the South Florida WordPress Users Group meetup. Additional notes and code samples are at https://rsvpmaker.com/teardown/

Yes, Toastmasters friends, I realize I spent too much time with my back to the audience (or at least to the cameraman, my son, who was all the way over to one side of the room). But the audio is not bad for video shot on a smartphone.

 

Please Support the WordPress for Toastmasters Project

I am writing to ask for your help making the WordPress for Toastmasters project a long-term success, which is something I can’t do alone.

See the Support This Project page for suggestions on how to help by placing an advertisement, making a donation, or contributing professionally by making the software, design, and documentation/tutorials better.

Active sites on toastmost.org

Funding is starting to become an issue for toastmost.org, the site where I invite people to create a club website for free.

If your club has a toastmost.org website, it’s safe: I’m not going to kick anyone off of the service. However, if I am going to continue to allow more clubs to sign up for it, I do need to figure out how to make it financially self sustaining. If we could raise $2,000 by the end of the year, the project would be in good shape.

The toastmost.org site has the advantage of allowing people to take advantage of the software without becoming experts on how to set up and configure web hosting. Working with more clubs and people with varying degrees of tech savvy also forces me to work harder at making the software itself easier to use. (I think it’s getting there). The clubs that have set up their own independent websites benefit, too.

Nobody Asked Me To Do This

Nobody asked me to create this service, but I saw it as the only way to allow the software to reach beyond a limited audience of Toastmasters who are also techies. What I call WordPress for Toastmasters was originally a set of one-off hacks for my own home club, but I got enough interest from friends in Toastmasters that I decided to find ways to share it.

Like a dot-com entrepreneur, I figured the first challenge was to prove I could generate an audience for this approach to managing a club website. I would worry about the money later.

Later is coming. Servers cost money, and soon I’ll need a bigger server or multiple servers to support the application. There are other commercial services I would like to invest in that would allow these websites to perform better, even for people on the other side of the world, or for improving the delivery of notification emails like password resets and role signup reminders. Possibly a nonprofit foundation should be established to manage the money, but setting up a foundation costs money also.

Worst Case Scenario

Worst case, I might close toastmost.org to new signups and continue to support it for clubs with existing websites. The open source software would continue to be available to clubs with the budget to set up their own websites, and districts or other organizations who embrace this approach could potentially set up their own multi-club websites on the toastmost.org model.

In that case, toastmost.org would become a demonstration project that proved the value of running a club website on WordPress, with Toastmasters-specific enhancements. I don’t see that as a bad outcome, but it’s not the best I would hope for.

Best Case Scenario

In a perfect world, someone reading this or someone I’m introduced to by someone reading this would pay $2,000 to be the exclusive sponsor of all the toastmost.org websites (there is a spot for an ad in the sidebar of each site) for the next year. Or a few companies, individuals, or clubs, pay the equivalent in smaller donations or advertisements.

Alternatively, I make a profitable business connection through one of you that makes me so fabulously wealthy the cost of this project becomes insignificant.

There may be other better than best case scenarios that I’m not even imagining. Part of what I’m asking for is that you help me imagine ways for this project to live up to its potential.

Thanks,

David F. Carr, versatile and inventive writer, editor, and web consultant
Author, Social Collaboration for Dummies
President, Online Presenters Toastmasters and member, Club Awesome Toastmasters

See my work on Forbes, connect with me on TwitterLinkedIn, or Facebook
david@carrcommunications.com
(954) 757-5827 (rolls over to mobile if no answer)