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.

 

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

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”

Agenda Setup and Fine Tuning (Video + Tips)

These are updated instructions for setting up your standard meeting agenda and tweaking it as necessary for individual meetings. In addition to trying to explain the software better, I have worked on simplifying the software itself to make the process easier!

If you don’t have time to watch the video, I’ve included some key points below. See also: Sample Contest Agendas: Evaluation and Humorous Speech.

One of the most important improvements is a new tool for planning the timing of your meetings. As you change your time estimate for each “stage directions” agenda note or each block of roles, the time estimates change automatically. You can also check to delete a role from the agenda if you will not have time for it in the context of a given meeting.

Adjusting the planned timing for a meeting.

Both the Agenda Setup and Agenda Timing tools can be used either to make changes for an individual meeting or to modify your standard meeting template and all the agendas based on that template.

Agenda Setup menu

With a time limit set for speeches, members who try to sign up for a speech project that would exceed that limit will get a warning that they need to ask the meeting organizer about adjusting the agenda or the club may not be able to accommodate them.

A warning that signing up for this project would exceed the total time allowed for speeches.

When you edit an agenda in the WordPress editor’s Visual mode, you will see the different components are now color-coded blue for roles, red for agenda notes, and purple for editable fields.

An agenda setup viewed in the WordPress editor’s Visual mode.

Click on any of these placeholders to get a popup editor window. Here, we’re modifying the speaker role and changing the time allowed for speeches.

Role editor popup.

The purple “editable” fields are agenda notes that instead of or in addition to any static content include the ability for you to add or edit a note on the front end of the website. This option becomes available in the same Edit Signups mode you would use to assign other members to roles.

This is useful for things like a Theme and/or Word of the Day field that changes from week to week. In the example below, it’s used to record the details about a guest speaker (or test speaker) for an evaluation contest.

A field that is editable on the front end of the website (Edit Signups mode)

Your agenda plan will rarely be perfect. Typically, the Toastmaster of the Day and club leaders will have to make last-minute adjustments no matter how carefully you plan. Still, you can maximize your odds of success by planning well.

 

Video: How to Reorder Speakers and Evaluators

The latest update to WordPress for Toastmasters makes it easier to rearrange the order in which we want speakers and evaluators to be listed on the agenda, which might not be the same as the order in which they signed up.

For example, my home club, Club Awesome, follows a tradition of allowing a member giving their Icebreaker to go first — so they can get it over with, if they’re nervous, and relax for the rest of the meeting. Or you might want to accommodate a speaker who needs to arrive late or leave early.

Also, several clubs have requested the ability to have the agenda display which speakers are matched with which evaluators. To make that work, we want to be able to rearrange the order so we can match speakers and evaluators appropriately (for example, to have a member’s mentor be the one who evaluates their icebreaker).

The video shows how you can now drag-and-drop to reorder roles. Continue reading “Video: How to Reorder Speakers and Evaluators”

Tracking, Updating Member Speech and Project History

The latest update to the WordPress for Toastmasters software includes several improvements to the system for tracking member activity, including more (still preliminary) support for the Pathways program.

The Toastmasters menu on the WordPress dashboard shows different options to the average member than to the administrator and club officers. The site administrator also has the option of deciding whether members should be able to see all the reports or only their own data (go to Settings -> Toastmasters and open the tab labeled Security).

At a minimum, every member has access to the My Progress screen with tabs labeled Basic Program (showing progress in the Competent Communicator and Competent Leader manuals), Speeches (listed chronologically and by manual), Advanced Awards, and Pathways. The Pathways screen is described in more detail below.

If the club allows members to update and edit their own data, tabs labeled Edit and Add Member Speech will also be displayed.

The Progress Reports screen is organized into the same list of tabs, but with the option to view reports and enter data for any member in the club.

Update History: One potentially disruptive change, for some club leaders, is the renaming of what used to be called the “Reconcile” screen on the administrator’s dashboard to “Update History.” If you are trying to keep accurate records of member speeches and roles completed, reconciling the agenda after the meeting is an important step to make sure the right people get credit for their participation. Letting the system gather most of that information from the agenda saves you time, but the reconciliation process cleans up discrepancies like last minute changes where one member was unable to attend and another stepped up to speak.

The reason for the name change is this screen can now be used to enter history from before you began using this software. For example, I was contacted by an officer of a club that has been meeting for several months and had records of roles filled at past meetings recorded on a spreadsheet. While it’s possible to record summary statistics like number of speeches given per manual, I wanted to make it easier for someone in that position to enter a series of meeting records without the need to create a bunch of back-dated events in the system.

How Precise Do You Want to Be?

As a club leader, it is up to you to decide how thorough you want to be about logging all data through the website software. It’s the software’s job to support your choices.

If you just want to use the website as a tool for organizing your meetings, you will get some basic tracking of member activity “for free” as part of that process, and the record will become more complete (particularly for new members) as time goes on). If that’s your attitude, you may not want to enter historical information at all.

Or you may want to add historical information at more of a summary level. The Edit tab in the Progress Reports screen will let a club leader enter summary statistics like how many speeches members have concluded in each manual. In other words, you can enter the number of CC speeches given, rather than entering the date, speech project, and title for each one. From that screen you can also make corrections to agenda records, such as adding the manual and project for a speech when that wasn’t done in advance.

Update History options

The argument for adding detailed historical information is that you and your members will need all the detailed information when applying for awards, meaning it could save you time and effort in the long run to have the data all in one place.

The Update History screen will allow you to enter records for past meetings on any date, using a form based on your meeting template.

If you just want to record speech projects, there is also the Add Member Speech tab on the Progress Reports screen.

New Pathways Tab

WordPress for Toastmasters has been phasing in some preliminary support for Pathways, the new Toastmasters educational program just starting to roll out to a handful of districts. I’ve been getting some exposure to it through Online Presenters Toastmasters, an online club I founded in which some of our members are also members of a club in a Pathways district.

WordPress for Toastmasters now includes Pathways projects on the signup form. The new web-based evaluation forms (introduced largely for the convenience of online clubs) also cover Pathways projects.

There is now a Pathways tab on the Progress reports screen that displays a summary of the progress of each member participating in Pathways. It shows a count of speeches completed in each level of the path selected by that member.

Overview of Member Progress in Pathways

When viewing the records for a specific member, you will see the listing of speeches the member has completed within that path. There is also a space for adding notes on other activities, such as completing self-assessments, that are part of the Pathways program.

Pathways record for an individual member.

 

Toastmasters International is providing more of its own online tools as part of the Pathways program, and it is not my intent to compete with them. The idea is to provide easier access to the information you gather in the natural course of business when you use WordPress for Toastmasters to organize your meeting agendas.

Other Enhancements

Following a recent overhaul of the way WordPress for Toastmasters tracks member data, club websites can now share member data with other clubs using the same software. This is automatic for clubs that host their sites on toastmost.org (a free service of the WordPress for Toastmasters project) because they share a common user/member database. In the coming weeks, I will introduce a service allowing clubs that run the software on independent websites to sync their data.

Tools for editing all this progress report data have also been updated for what you should find to be a smoother user experience. Feedback on how to improve it further is always welcome.

Adding Custom CSS Through the WordPress Customize Utility

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

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

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

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

Adding custom CSS

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

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

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

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