Updates to the Online Ballots for Contest Judges and the Vote Counting Dashboard

When I recently asked for feedback from people who had used my online tools for judges, ballot counters, and the chief judge, one message I got from the judges was they wanted clearer confirmation that their votes had been received.

Here is how the latest release of the software handles that, showing the judge a “Checking whether votes have been received…” message, followed by a “Votes received on ballot counting dashboard” confirmation.

Demo of the vote casting and vote counting tools
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New Member Mailing List Option

A new option is available for member and officer email group email discussion lists, where any list member is enabled to send a message to all other members. This provides an easy method for distributing club announcements and appeals for help with an event or project.

A mailing list message

Members can unsubscribe from these messages, and administrators can block members from sending if they abuse the privilege.

The new mailing list facility is a feature of RSVPMaker, one of the WordPress plugins included in WordPress for Toastmasters.

Prompt to switch

If you administer a club website that previously established a mailing list using an integration with the WP Mailster plugin (previously the default for toastmost.org sites), you will see a prompt on the dashboard suggesting that you will switch. The email settings will automatically be imported from WP Mailster, allowing you to make the switch with a minimum of hassle.

If you prefer the WP Mailster functionality, you can keep it. Just be aware that if your list grows beyond 50 members, you will start getting messages prompting you to update to the paid version of that plugin. The RSVPMaker version is also more tightly integrated and tailored to meet club requirements.

More detailed documentation for setting up the RSVPMaker Group Email feature is available here.

Toastmost.org users who wish to establish a new email list should contact me for assistance because it requires configuring email accounts to act as queues for each list you establish. I don’t have a self-service way of enabling that, at least not yet.

Turn on “Show in my timezone” for online meetings

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.

Show in my timezone

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.

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7 Handy Features for Toastmasters Meetings and Contests Conducted Online

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.)

Signing up for a speech

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.

Continue reading “7 Handy Features for Toastmasters Meetings and Contests Conducted Online”

Tool Updates and Updated Advice for Online Contests

Option to record votes on behalf of a judge.

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.

Finally, I’ve added some additional error checking. I had one judge submit a blank ballot. The JavaScript code that was supposed to prevent that from happening apparently didn’t work properly, possibly because she was using an old version of Internet Explorer. I added an additional check to keep such votes from being recorded.

Suggestions on what else needs to be changed or improved are welcome.

Interactive Speech Evaluation Forms Now Independently Available for Free

The interactive evaluation forms created as part of the WordPress for Toastmasters project are now independently available at https://toastmost.org/evaluation-forms/

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.

Public version of the evaluation forms on toastmost.org
Emailed evaluation form

Current Traffic to Toastmost.org Club Websites Using WordPress for Toastmasters

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).

The Toastmost.org audience

More details in these downloads.

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.

You can contact me at david@wp4toastmasters.com.

A Note on Financing

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.

Suggestions? david@wp4toastmasters.com.

Online Speech Timer and How to Display it in a Zoom Meeting

Update: Since this post was published, I’ve come up with a simpler way of sharing timing lights in a Zoom meeting that does not require the use of additional software.

The technique shown below for using the OBS Studio virtual webcam is something I may still use and is good for showing the timing lights inside of Zoom, but I figured out another method that is technically simpler.


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).

The VirtualCam add-on to OBS Studio that lets you substitute the video feed from that software for the feed from your computer webcam. You could use other webcam software products such as SparkoCam or ManyCam to do the same thing.

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 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.

Software downloads:

See also contest.toastmost.org – site providing access to the Toastmasters contest timing tools, separate from a club website.

The onscreen timer is a feature of WordPress for Toastmasters, but a version that’s separate from my agenda and contest management tools is available at https://wp4toastmasters.com/?timer=1

The timer is based on code originally developed by Guy Ellis.

If the OBS Studio is too complicated for your taste, you can also change the Zoom background image manually, as shown below, and still use the online Timer tool to track and record the times.

Manually changing background color in Zoom, side by side with the online timer.

Tutorial Video: Contest Judging and Vote Counting Tool (Standalone Version)

This tutorial is a companion to the blog on the online contest judging and vote counting tools, which includes a video demo that is more of a “commercial” for how it works and why you might want to use it.

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.

Security

Access to the scoring dashboard is limited to authorized users.

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.

Accessing the scoring dashboard from a meeting agenda.

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.