If you are inviting people from around the world, not just around town, to your online meetings, turn on the timezone display and “Show in my timezone” options for your event notices.
Displaying the timezone is the bare minimum you want to do if you’re promoting a meeting or event on a global basis. But rather than forcing the potential attendee to do the mental math to calculate between timezones, let the computer help them.
While WordPress for Toastmasters aims to provide useful digital tools for all clubs, many of its features were road tested at Online Presenters Toastmasters — and are being put to work helping Toastmasters clubs that have been abruptly forced to move online, temporarily, by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some clubs will probably stop conducting business online as soon as possible, while others may continue to incorporate online attendance even after the crisis is past. (I think we’ll all be glad when meeting online is a choice, rather than a necessity.)
Meanwhile, read on for an outline of a the features you will be most likely to find useful for online club operations. The software is free, with inexpensive web hosting available at toastmost.org.
There are lots of reasons you might want to add an events registration form to your Toastmasters club website, but I am writing this in the midst of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic as many clubs are moving to meeting online, at least temporarily.
The contest tools available at contest.toastmost.org got a vigorous workout in a division contest held online for District 77, where I was invited to serve as chief judge. I came away with a few lessons learned, as well as ideas for improving the software.
One thing that happened is that overwhelmed judges either didn’t see or didn’t read the email notifications inviting them to set a password. So one important lesson for next time is to make sure Toastmasters who are not used to doing everything online get a proper orientation and are prompted to make sure they can sign onto the personalized judging links for the contest ahead of time.
In this case of the division contest I volunteered for, some judges never did get the hang of submitting their votes online, or did so inconsistently. One change I made to the software is to make it easier for the Chief Judge or Ballot Counters who have access to the password protected contest dashboard to record votes on a judge’s behalf.
I recommend that you have judges send you their votes by some other means as a backup. If you’re using Zoom, the private chat feature will work for that purpose. If you get their votes via private chat or email or text, you can record them so the dashboard will include their votes in the final ranking. (Without that feature, I had to resort to hustling together a quick spreadsheet to calculate and rank the totals).
In addition, if you’re setting up multiple contests rather than just one, and the same people will be acting as judges, timers, or ballot counters for each of them, you can import the settings from an event you set up previously.
Suggestions on what else needs to be changed or improved are welcome.
While perhaps not as pretty as the Pathways PDFs or the old manuals, they contain the same prompts and can be easier to work with for clubs functioning online where you’re not all in the same room. Even in pre-pandemic times, members of my brick and mortar club found them useful when someone forgot to bring their manual or their Pathways printout. I personally find the process of printing and manually filling out forms, scanning them, and emailing them to someone pretty awkward.
These forms are being made available as a free resource, no obligation written or implied. You can use them without changing your club website setup.
When used independently of a club website, you just have to fill in your email address and the email of the speaker if you want the form emailed. Or you can copy and paste into an email message after the completed form is displayed on screen.
When used in combination with the WordPress for Toastmasters agenda management tools, the evaluation form automatically pulls in the speaker and evaluator information, plus project information as recorded on the website.
Toastmost.org is a web hosting service for clubs that want to use the WordPress for Toastmasters software without managing all the technical details themselves. In 2020 to date, it’s attracted 37,505 page views according to Google Analytics, with a recent surge of interest related to the current interest in online clubs (several of which use the service).
It’s been a while since I’ve shared these statistics, which could be of interest to those interested in advertising or otherwise supporting this service for Toastmasters. I’m also interested in recruiting others with skills in training, documentation, usability, promotion, fundraising, design, programming, usability, and anything else that could make this project better.
I’ve been running this project largely as a one-man-show for the past several years as a loss leader for my small business, Carr Communications Inc. I’m lucky to have a small group of supporters who have given me moral and in some cases financial support. But even with the $30 per club website I recently began charging for toastmost.org (after a one-year free trial), I am not profiting from this venture — nor am I trying to. My selfish interest is in learning from the experience and gaining professional exposure that might lead to opportunities.
I would happily form a nonprofit foundation to oversee WordPress for Toastmasters, except that would be a project in and of itself that I’d need help with.
If I seem defensive, it’s because I’ve been attacked for trying to “profit from my relationship with Toastmasters” when in my own mind I’ve been trying hard to give my contributions away for free, or as close to free as I can afford to do.
This demo shows how the speech timer tool can be used in the contest of a speech contest conducted online. The particular technique demonstrated here includes the use of OBS Studio, a free video streaming tool often used by gamers (OBS = Open Broadcaster Software).
There is a “virtual webcam” add-on to OBS Studio that lets you substitute the video feed from that software for the feed from your computer webcam.
Note that you can use the Timer tool to report times, even if you choose to use a technically simpler method like holding timer cards up to the webcam. You can still type in the times and submit them so that the Chief Judge and Ballot Counters will see the votes rolling in. But if you can make the method I outline work, it will actually save you some time.
Capturing the video from a specific browser window works better with Firefox (couldn’t get it to work with either Chrome or Edge). If you have a second display attached to your computer, you can capture the entire video feed from that second screen, which is an alternate method I’ve used that works with any browser.
The video and bullet points below provide more how-to details on the use of the contest tools. These instructions are specific to the standalone version of the contest tools (users of WordPress for Toastmasters contest websites can access the same tools by clicking the Contest Scoring Dashboard item under the Agenda menu for any meeting).
An area, division, or district leader who would like to use this tool can set up one or more scoring dashboards by following these instructions:
The process is:
Create a toastmost.org user account if you do not already have one.
Log in at contest.toastmost.org
Enter a title and date for your contest
Invite judges and other contest organizers to join you. If they do not already have a user account, one will be created for them.
Judges will be sent a unique, coded link for their digital voting form.
“Dashboard users” (chief judge, ballot counters, other authorized users) will be sent the link to the scoring dashboard where the results will be displayed. Only authorized users can access this screen (see screenshot below).
Enter the list of contestants for the contest.
At the appropriate time, set the speaker order. The online system can randomly shuffle the order of contestants for you, or you can only set the order manually.
Verify that all judges have the coded link to their voting page and are able to access it. You may wish to email that link to them shortly before the contest begins.
There is a separate coded link for the Timer’s report tool. Send that to the timer or timer.
Have a Backup Plan
This tool has worked well for multiple contests. Still, you should have contingencies for technology glitches. If a single judge is unable to vote online, but relays votes to the ballot counters or Chief Judge, contest organizers can record those on the judge’s behalf using the coded link on the scoring dashboard.
The contest scoring dashboard is password protected. Be careful that you distributed the coded links for each judge and the timer to the correct individuals.
How the Club Website Version is Different
On a club website, members already have user accounts, so you would typically assign roles to existing users rather than creating user accounts for purposes of participation in a contest. It is possible to put in the name of a guest judge from another club (rather than picking a user name from the list) and manually email the coded judging page link to that person. The chief judge and ballot counters must have user accounts to access the password-protected contest scoring dashboard.
The initial setup of a contest dashboard is accomplished by selecting “Contest Scoring Dashboard” under the “Agenda” menu for any event. Initial access to the judging dashboard is limited to users with administrator or editor rights. Once the dashboard is set up for a specific contest, access can be added to other users who will be filling contest roles such as ballot counter.
The contest scoring tool available at contest.toastmost.org (and as part of websites based on WordPress for Toastmasters) makes it possible for judges to judge, timers to submit their time reports, and contest leaders to tally the votes entirely online. Originally created for use by online clubs, it can also be used for traditional contests, allowing judges to record their votes via laptop, tablet, or smartphone.
I’m currently seeking a ruling from Toastmasters International HQ to address the concerns of Toastmasters leaders who aren’t sure whether TI rules allow for online voting.
Update: When I asked Toastmasters International to review these tools for compliance with their rules, I received a response saying they cannot endorse specific technology products but that “online resources are allowed during this time!” I interpret that as meaning my tools can be used at the discretion of contest organizers.
Personally, I see this as a sensible alternative to trying to print, scan, and email PDF documents or otherwise try to force fit offline methods into an online context — particularly in light of the current “social isolation” crisis related to the Coronavirus.
Here is how it works:
The version integrated into club websites created with WordPress for Toastmasters is slightly different, allowing synchronization with a club’s contest meeting agenda and use of existing member logins. The standalone contest.toastmost.org was created to meet the needs or areas, divisions, districts, and clubs that have not adopted the broader WordPress for Toastmasters solution.
The elements of the solution are:
A contest dashboard where you specify the contestants, judges, and tie breaking judge and watch the results roll in as they vote.
A judging page for each judge, recently updated to work on phones as well as PCs. As judges record their scores, the software tallies them and can also help rank them from highest to lowest. The judge then records their first, second, and third choices just as they would on paper.
A tiebreaking judge page, which works the same way, except that the judge ranks all contestants rather than the top three.
A timing page, which includes an interactive web-based timing tool. It’s possible to show the timing screen’s green/yellow/red indicators onscreen, or they can just be used as a signal for when the timer should signal to the speaker in some other way. Times for contestants and disqualifications can also be entered manually.
Although these tools have worked well for my clubs, anyone who uses them should also have a backup plan for what happens if Internet connections fail or the website where the software is hosted crashes. You might have 4 out of 5 judges report their votes online without a problem and the 5th person have to transmit their vote by email, text, WhatsApp, or carrier pigeon. Perhaps one of the best skills we learn in Toastmasters is how to adapt when things don’t go perfectly, so be on your toes.
For more detailed how-to instructions on setting up a stand-alone contest scoring dashboard (independent of a club website), see this tutorial.
A few notes about compliance with Toastmasters rules, as currently written:
Although there is a single timing dashboard, in contests where two timers have been recruited, they can still compare notes before submitting the official times.
The official documents from Toastmasters International can be completed after the fact (on paper or in an editable PDF) and submitted as contest records. Have judges and timers take a picture of the signed forms and email or text them to the contest organizers. The digital tools outlined here still simplify the process of gathering the vote in a scenario where judges, vote counters, the chief judge, and other functionaries are in different locations.
The contest scoring tool will be available free of charge until at least July 1, 2020.
When guests visit my home club, Club Awesome, one thing we often hear from them is, “I looked up a few local clubs, but I really liked what I saw on your website” … which is my cue to beam with pride.
There are certainly limits to what a website can do for you as a recruiting tool — what guests experience in person has to measure up to what they saw online — but a good website can attract guests and, ultimately, members. A bad website can also scare them away. And while I promote WordPress for Toastmasters and have considerable ego wrapped up in the idea that it is the best online platform for clubs, the software is less important than what you do with it. I’ve seen some very uninspired WordPress-based club websites, as well as some good Free Toast Host examples.
This post was originally published on the Toastmasters District 47 website and is based on a review of websites from the region (South Florida and The Bahamas). I’m only sharing the positive examples, but here is what makes the good ones good:
They tell an attractive story, in words, images, and maybe video about the club experience.
They clearly explain, right up top, where and when meetings are held, how to attend as a guest, and that guests are always welcome.
They focus on answering questions people with little or no knowledge of Toastmasters are likely to have, rather than on insider information for current members. Particularly on the home page, avoid navel gazing.
The images, videos, and colors used are carefully chosen to support a clear, welcoming message.
Bonus: More depth beyond the home page. Examples: Member directory, blog articles, link to an active Facebook Group or Facebook Page.
I like the Miami-Wynwood Toastmasters example shown above because it features a collage of dynamic images: four Toastmasters in the act of speaking, not posing woodenly with a ribbon or a certificate.
In fact, it inspired me to add a semi-similar image at the top of the Club Awesome home page.
My version does feature a ribbon-passing photo (with smiling, friendly faces), but also some images of club members in action. As is true of the Miami-Wynwood home page, the image is followed by a couple of paragraphs of “why this is the right club for you” copy, then details on where and when we meet. We include a Google Maps link, and they embed the actual map.
What to Avoid
The negative examples I cite here might not necessarily scare a potential visitor away, if your club has established a good reputation in other ways (offline word of mouth) and meets at a convenient place and time. However, we know how important first impressions are, and these days someone’s first impression of your club is likely to be an impression they get online, before you even get them in the door.
Things I recommend against:
Outdated information, like a message congratulating the “new” officers … from 3 years ago.
Insider messages that only make sense to people who are already in Toastmasters.
Home pages that are all text, no images, video, or other eye-catching elements.
Group photos and ribbon/certificate passing photos that fall flat. Not all group photos are bad, but if the group is small and the members don’t look particularly happy, ask yourself why you’re sharing it. Try to feature dynamic, engaging images, particularly at the top of the page.
Photos where no one is smiling or looking at the camera. One local club prominently features a photo taken from the back of the room where everyone is looking in the other direction.
– don’t think you should use every available font, or make everything bold and italic (the whole point of those is emphasis, and you can’t put equal emphasis on everything).
Wild, random color choices. A simple, consistent design tends to be much better.
Let’s get back to the positives.
Video is one of the best ways of showing Toastmasters in action. Here’s a good use of video, right at the top of the home page of Hobe Sound Toastmasters. The still image is eye-catching, making it more likely that a visitor will click “Play.”
Club Awesome uses two video clips, not at the very top of the page but a short scroll down. home page, you find a video of club members endorsing the club experience, and another showing what it’s like to receive a standing ovation (which we customarily give to every Ice Breaker).
We also often post blogs that feature speeches that the speakers were particularly proud of, as well as contest-winning speeches (with the speaker’s permission).
Shooting video is also a way you can get better photography for your website because you can pull still images from the video of a speaker to capture a moment where they are making a dramatic movement. Here are how-to instructions using free tools for Windows and Mac.
Going Beyond the Home Page
A good club home page can do a lot for you, but adding additional web pages or blog posts does a few things for you:
Gives the interested website visitor more to explore and an impression of the club that is more than skin deep.
Creates alternate entry points: a website visitor may start with an interesting page or post found through search or social media, then navigate to the home page to get the basic details.
Gives you an alternate link to promote on social media, beyond your club home page.
Plantation Toastmasters has created a Speakers Gallery where their most accomplished / ambitious speakers have their own pages. You can see they use a group photo on their home page, but it’s an impressively large group where people are smiling and looking into the camera.
Club Awesome sometimes builds blog posts around videos of outstanding speeches, like this one from Dr. Andrew Bern.
When you feature an individual club member, you create an opportunity for that members and their friends to share and like any social media postings of the article. Website visitors who read the blog and / or watch the video will have a point of reference when they come to the club and meet that person.
You can also encourage members who like to write (or, at least, are willing to write) to share a blog post about how to write a speech, lead a volunteer organization, or any other topic on which they have expertise. They can get Toastmasters credit for the Write a Compelling Blog Pathways project.
Access to a built-in blog is one of the reasons I recommend WordPress. However, if you’re on Free Toast Host or some other platform, you can also post links to articles on LinkedIn (which has its own blog-like tool for publishing articles), Medium, or some other publishing web publishing platform.
In both cases, I think these clubs do a good job of sharing images and information that might entice someone to visit. On the other hand, I would argue these options inherently limit the kind of content you can post.
I absolutely think you should take advantage of Facebook as part of your club marketing plan, and it has a lot of advantages. Posting an image and a couple of sentences to Facebook is easier than creating a blog post; on the other hand if you want to post more in-depth information and control the presentation of your content, that is not as easy on Facebook. Also, not everyone is on Facebook, and some of the people you want to reach may actively dislike the service.
In other words, I think it’s better to use online services like this as an extension and amplifier of what you do on your website, not as a substitute for it.
Worth the Effort
Maybe you don’t have time to write a dozen blog posts per week, or share tons of videos on your website. You don’t have to go crazy. But I hope I have convinced you it’s worth investing some time and effort in making your website more attractive and interesting for potential members to explore — and eliminating the negatives that could be scaring them away.
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