New, More Flexible Model Agenda

As a follow up to a recent update making it easier to adjust the timing on your agenda, I want to walk you through a few ways you can make your agenda more flexibile.

What you’re seeing below is a new version of the default agenda for new club websites. If you have an existing club website, I’ll explain what you might change to take advantage of options that were not available previously. In particular, when you add an Editable Note to your agenda you can now have a chunk of meeting time associated with that note.

In the example below, Welcome and Introductions is an Editable Note set for 5 minutes. The entire meeting is timed to last for 1 hour (in this case, 6:30 to 7:30 pm).

Welcome and Introductions is an Editable Agenda Note with 5 minutes time allowed

The Editable Note block is a placeholder for content that can be changed on the agenda from meeting to meeting. It can also be used for purposes such as setting a Theme and/or Word of the Day that will be displayed on the agenda. As shown below in the WordPress editor, Welcome and Introductions has been entered as the label that will be displayed to introduce any meeting-specific content.

In the Block properties sidebar, we can see Time Allowed has been set for 5 minutes. Another new option is the Toggle to display a smaller version of the label, bolded, rather than showing it as a headline (the default). I have that alternate display turned on.

An Editable Note in the WordPress editor

Time can also be associated with Agenda Note blocks and Toastmasters Role blocks. An Agenda Note is a paragraph of “stage directions” for standard phases of your meetings, such as “5-Minute Break” that can have time associated with them (for example, 5 minutes). If you want to change the text of an Agenda Note, you have to do that in the WordPress editor.

The advantage of an Editable Note is that it can be edited on the front end by members who don’t necessarily have website editing rights. It’s assumed to be something that changes from one meeting to the next. If no meeting-specific content has been entered, just the label will be displayed.

Here’s an example of adding a note about the activities members can expect during the Welcome and Introductions portion of this particular meeting.

Changing The Timing to Match

Editable Note blocks can be used in combination with the Agenda Time Planner tool, which also allows routine adjustments to be made from the front end of the website. In the scenario illustrated below, a visiting District Director has asked for 10 minutes on the agenda. We’ve added that information to the Welcome and Introductions, but now we also need to adjust our agenda to make room for that activity — and make sure our meeting will still end on time.

Adjusting the Agenda Timing to make room for a longer meeting introduction activity.

The Agenda Time Planner allows us to assign more or less time to different part of our meeting and can also be used to adjust the Count for roles (for example, the number of speakers and evaluators). In addition, it allows us to remove a role from the agenda. In this case, I add 10 minutes to Welcome and Introductions and drop the Topics Master, who normally leads a 10-minute Table Topics session. Alternatives to dropping Table Topics would include reducing the number of speakers and evaluators and the time allowed for their portions of the meeting.

Update: You can now also set the content for Editable Notes block on the Agenda Time Planner screen. So you can change the description that will appear on the agenda and also change the time allowed at the same time.

Clubs can use these tools many different ways, and I hope you will find they help you plan and run better meetings. Although I show the editable block at the beginning, you might also use it in the middle as a placeholder for activities like new member inductions that don’t happen every week. If you come up with your own novel uses for these features, or have ideas about how they could be improved, let me know.

Installing the Model Agenda

If you have an established club website and have already worked on customizing your agenda, follow the instructions above to add the new options. However, if you’re starting over, you may want to use the Setup Wizard to rebuild your agenda. You’ll find it under the Toastmasters Admin menu.

Setup Wizard

Alternatively, you can use copy and paste the code below into the WordPress editor. First, toggle the editor to show the code view of your agenda template document. Paste in this code, then switch back to visual editing to customize or rearrange the different elements.

3-dots menu in upper right corner reveals the option to switch between Visual editor and Code editor

Demo: Toastmasters Agenda Time Planner

The members of your club appreciate it when you have a well-organized agenda that allows you to pack a lot into your meetings — and still finish on time. In addition to having a standard meeting agenda that you follow most weeks, you will have occasional needs to adjust for longer speeches or special activities.

The WordPress for Toastmasters software allows you to assign time to meeting roles and activities, and the new Agenda Time Planner tool allows meeting organizers to make adjustments to that schedule more quickly and easily. It’s shown fast-forward below and demoed in more detail in my video.

The Agenda Time Planner

An example of when you would use this tool is when a member needs to give a speech that is longer than the standard 7 minutes, and you need to cut back on the time assigned for Table Topics or other activities.

The Agenda Time Planner is an interactive worksheet that shows you the effect of adding or subtracting time on different parts of your agenda. It’s available to meeting leaders such as the Toastmaster of the Day who may not have the website editing rights necessary to edit the underlying document. In addition to helping you produce an agenda that looks well organized, the goal is to help you be more organized heading into a meeting.

Continue reading “Demo: Toastmasters Agenda Time Planner”

Best Practices for Using the Online Contest Tools in WordPress for Toastmasters

The suite of digital tools for voting by judges — and vote counting by contest leaders — can allow you to get a vote very quickly if everything goes right. Here are the things you should do to make everything go right — and to be prepared when something goes wrong.

What the process looks like when everything goes right.

I have now been using some version of these tools for more than 3 years and have been involved in several contests that have gone swimmingly, as well as a few that had hiccups. When I think I can change the software to eliminate problems, I try to do so. But any software is just a tool, and how you use the tool makes a big difference.

Get Everything Set Up as Early as Possible

Set up the contest dashboard well in advance. On a club website, you would pick Contest Dashboard on the Agenda menu for the contest meeting date. You can also set up a contest dashboard independent of a WordPress for Toastmasters club website at contest.toastmost.org.

Familiarize yourself with the Contest Dashboard ahead of time, including all of the tabs across the bottom.

Before the contest begins, make sure you have set the speaker order. There’s an automated way of doing that through the tool, but if you use some other method make sure you record it manually on the Contestants tab. The digital ballots will not be active until the speaking order has been set.

Continue reading “Best Practices for Using the Online Contest Tools in WordPress for Toastmasters”

New Website & Newsletter Promotes Special Events and Club Meetings

If you have a special event to promote, be sure to let me know. Starting next Sunday I’ll be sending out a weekly calendar of events from the Toastmasters world — with one featured event getting star billing at the top of the list.

This will be a separate newsletter email list from the WordPress for Toastmasters one and potentially serves a larger audience. You can sign up for the email list and browse through events for the next few weeks at calendar.toastmost.org. Each event’s start time is adjusted for display in your local timezone, as well as the timezone of the club or event sponsor. Online and hybrid meetings make it possible to attend meetings and events anywhere in the world, but this display makes it easier to see how events from clubs far away align with your schedule.

Events from around the world adjusted to the viewer’s local timezone

As of now, what you will see are event listings pulled from club websites hosted on Toastmost.org. However, clubs who promote themselves through another website hosting service, or through Facebook, are invited to post their events directly to calendar.toastmost.org (even if what you post is just a link back to your own digital home base). On the other hand, you’re welcome to use the calendar website for more elaborate postings that can include images and other multimedia.

Although I’ve taken the liberty of adding Toastmost club websites as a way of jump starting this service, participation is optional. Clubs who use the WordPress for Toastmasters software can add or remove their club event listings from the website on the Site Sync On/Off page.

Each week, I’ll pick a different club or event to feature at the top of the newsletter that goes out on Sundays. In the mockup below, that’s the Your Featured Event Here slot. The event listing that follows covers events occurring in the next week.

The newsletter version does not include the timezone conversions (which don’t work in email) but links back to the website for this information. You’ll get a version of the newsletter shown above as a welcome email when you sign up for the mailing list.

Sign up at calendar.toastmost.org

There is no charge for this service, but I would be interested in hearing from potential sponsors or advertisers. In part, it will serve to promote the Toastmost.org club website hosting service.

Why a MailPoet Email Newsletter Might Make Sense for Your Club

As a longtime MailChimp user and a member of their developer program, I feel a little disloyal saying this — but a WordPress plugin called MailPoet looks like a better choice those of you looking to create an integrated digital marketing, recruiting, and member retention program for your Toastmasters club.

MailPoet makes it easy to assemble content from blog posts and web pages, plus any other text and images you’d like to add, into an email newsletter. They provide a nice drag-and-drop visual designer (which you can see in the video below), which is particularly good for pulling together content you already have on your website (no need to upload it again to a separate service).

In addition, I’ve been working on ways of integrating meeting and special event content. If you have people register online to attend your meetings, you can invite them to sign up for your email list at the same time. These features are available to both Toastmost users and independent website administrators.

The video below is a mashup of a speech I gave at Online Presenters, plus some supplementary material.

My MailPoet tutorial

And here’s an example of the welcome email guests at Online Presenters now get when they sign up for our email list as part of the process of signing up to attend a meeting.

Welcome message for the Online Presenters email list.

As distinct from a group email discussion list, which is another handy tool for a club to have at its disposal, an email newsletter is good for sending out more polished and designed marketing messages.

The MailPoet email newsletter distribution service is free for up to 1,000 subscribers, as long as you don’t mind an ad in the footer, and competitively priced beyond that level. If you should happen to hit the 1,000-subscriber mark with your Toastmasters club promotions — first of all, congratulations! — you can figure out whether paying for the service makes sense. But I suspect most clubs will happily use the free tier of service for a good long time.

Continue reading “Why a MailPoet Email Newsletter Might Make Sense for Your Club”

Showing the Online Toastmasters Speech Timer in Zoom, with OBS Studio (2021 Tutorial)

This is the latest of several tutorials I’ve prepared on making the online timer tool visible in Zoom, updated to reflect the fact that OBS Studio software no longer requires an additional plugin to function as a virtual camera. The timer tool itself has also been updated and enhanced many times since the first version was released in 2017.

You could achieve the same effect using other webcam software, such as SparkoCam, ManyCam, or XSplit Broadcaster, but OBS has the virtue of being a free download from obsproject.com.

See also this related post on using the timer in the context of an online Toastmasters contest.

If your club uses the WordPress for Toastmasters club website and agenda system, the timer tool is available under the agenda menu for regular meetings. The timer is available independently at https://toastmost.org/rsvpmaker/timer/?timer=1 — although you lose out on the benefits of integration with the agenda with that standalone version.

Update: Using the popup timer, rather than the main screen.

For more details on green screen setup, I recommend looking at this video tutorial:

Digital Contest Ballots, Timer Tool, and Contest Organizers’ Dashboard Updated for 2021

Here are a few video tutorials on the online tools for conducting contests created as part of the WordPress for Toastmasters project. These are also independently available at contest.toastmost.org for clubs that don’t have a a Toastmost or WordPress for Toastmasters website and for use in area, division, and district contests.

Each judge receives their own coded link to a digital ballot. As the judges vote, the Chief Judge and ballot counter can watch the as the ballots roll in and are automatically tabulated. The ballot counters can then hunt down any that may be missing, if necessary. With a little preparation, you can use this system to allow you to run a contest that will go smoothly and allow you to announce a result very quickly.

These tools are not new, but they are improved. New for 2021:

  • Easier setup for events that include 2 contests, such as International Speech and Table Topics
  • A quick way of emailing out the ballots and timer’s report links to contest functionaries
  • Clearer on-screen prompts and instructions for the judges on how to submit the digital ballot
  • Timer controls can be enlarged for easier viewing. Clarified some button labels and other controls. Updated instructions for sharing in Zoom, below.

Digital Ballots and Vote Counting Dashboard

Updates: Since this video was recorded, two elements of the contest organizer’s dashboard have moved to tabs at the bottom of the screen:

  • Email Links – this tab will help you send coded links to the judges and the timer.
  • Backup Forms – if any of the judges are unable to use the online ballot but get you their votes some other way (such as texting them to you), you can enter them on their behalf. They will then be added to the final tally.

Video: Contest Speech Timing Tool

Streaming the Timer Video to Zoom

If you want to share screen colors in a Zoom meeting, you will need some sort of webcam or streaming software. I use OBS Studio, which is free, open source software that allows you to mix your webcam video with other video sources. The virtual camera function, which used to require a separate plugin but is built into the latest release of OBS, must be turned on. In Zoom, you will then select OBS Virtual Camera as your video source.

Click Start Virtual Camera to begin sending output to the virtual camera. In OBS, you will select the timer window or the popup timer as the video source to use as your background.

Selecting the Virtual Camera in Zoom

Here’s a good tutorial on green screen setup for OBS Studio.

If your club has a Toastmost.org website, or its own WordPress-powered website, the same tool is available from a contest agenda. For regular meetings, the timer pulls in the names of speakers and evaluators from the agenda and gives you options for timing Table Topics and other events.

What Do You Get With Toastmost That You Can’t Get for Free?

The best things in life are free, and yet … it’s also said that you get what you pay for.

Why should any Toastmasters club should pay for a club website on Toastmost.org, when Free Toast Host is free? Or even pay for a WordPress site, when the basic version of WordPress.com is free?

To be clear, the WordPress for Toastmasters project gives its software away for free. You just need a club webmaster with the tech skills to set up an independent website and install the plugins. And at $30 per year, a Toastmost.org website is inexpensive compared to setting up your own website.

But to answer the question …

Free Toast Host is Free, But …

Free Toast Host is free because it is subsidized by Toastmasters International. This project is not. But for marketing purposes, what Free Toast Host gives you is more like a web page than a full-fledged website. Also, people have been complaining for years about the lack of a responsive design (where web pages adjust for display on a mobile device).

A WordPress design is more mobile friendly and includes many features that promote search engine optimization and social media integration. The software doesn’t do all the work, but a good club webmaster can take maximum advantage of those tools.

In other words, WordPress gives you more ways of attracting people to your website and converting them into visitors and, ultimately, members.

Finally, the functionality of WordPress website can be extended with optional plugins. This extensibility is how WordPress for Toastmasters adds agenda management, features to help clubs conduction online meetings, and so on.

WordPress.com Is Free, But …

WordPress is free and open source software (available through WordPress.org). Its major corporate backer operates a site where you can sign up for a free personal website: WordPress.com.

WordPress.com gives you the basic web publishing features for free, but you have to upgrade to a paid account in order to add plugins. You won’t be able to turn on the agenda management features of the WordPress for Toastmasters project on a free account. And even a paid account won’t duplicate the pre-configured features of a Toastmost website (such as mailing lists and an autoresponder for “prospective member” inquiries relayed from toastmasters.org).

Upgrade to install plugins message on WordPress.com

Other Options

Some clubs swear another volunteer-run service, easy-Speak, which has many virtues in terms of agenda and club management but not much polish in terms of club marketing.

Finally, some clubs improvise their own technical solutions with Google Sites and Google Sheets, or Wix, or their own website custom programmed by a resident techie. The WordPress for Toastmasters solution started as a hack for a single club and and is published as open source software, which as an open invitation for programmers and designers to add their own improvements.

The Toastmost Alternative

Toastmost signup page

To get a Toastmost site, you must 1) sign up for the WordPress for Toastmasters email list 2) create a Toastmost user account 3) fill out a form that asks for your details like club name and when you meet.

The learning curve is not zero, but I keep trying to simplify it — and am available to answer questions. I’m also looking for people who can help with documentation and training materials, or who will share feedback on where the documentation and/or the software itself aren’t as good as they ought to be.

If a generous sponsor should come along to allow me to make the Toastmost service free, that would make me very happy. Until then …

David F. Carr for Toastmost and the WordPress for Toastmasters project

david@wp4toastmasters.com

Updates to Toastmost.org Find a Club Autoresponder, Plus BaseCamp Notification Forwarding

Toastmost users can take advantage of a few email functions meant to assist with notification emails from Toastmasters.org.

You can have an automated bot respond to those “New prospective member for your club” emails sent when someone fills out a form on your club’s “Find a Club” page, letting people know the essential details about your club. You can also set up a forwarding list specifically for BaseCamp notifications and a general forwarding list for all other notifications.

These functions are only available on Toastmost.org so far but may be added to the open source software distribution in the future.

Setup is through this screen under TM Administration.

Find a Club / Notifications Setup

Choose whether to take advantage of an @toastmost.org email address associated with your website that you register in Club Central. Alternatively, you can configure forwarding from another email account your club uses (GMail instructions here).

Creating an Automatic Response Message

Choose “New” from the dropdown menu under “Automatic response content” and click Save Changes. This will create a simple message directing people to visit your club’s website to learn more.

You can then edit the message to add more details about your club, such as membership requirements and contact information for the VP of Membership.

Online Presenters example

The example above is from a test inquiry I sent to myself for one of my clubs, Online Presenters. A copy of the response sent to the prospective member is shared with the website administrator, with a subject line that starts “autoreply sent to” and the email address of the prospective member. If everything is working properly, you will see that message within few minutes of receiving the prospective member message from toastmasters.org.

General Forwarding

Enter a list of email addresses of people who should receive copies of notification emails sent to this general inbox.

BaseCamp Notification Forwarding

Optionally, you can have a different forwarding list for messages from BaseCamp@toastmasters.org, such as “Action needed: Member submitted a completion request.” Typically, the BaseCamp list would consist of the officers authorized to approve level completion requests.

If you have this set up, BaseCamp messages will ONLY be distributed to the people on this list (not to the general forwarding list).

If no BaseCamp list is specified, BaseCamp messages will be forwarded to the general list.