Are You Ready for Your Toastmasters Club to Go Hybrid?

As part of a recent presentation on how to prepare to move to a hybrid club format for Toastmasters, I made a point of saying to think twice before taking the jump. You might want to try hybrid meetings as an experiment first before committing to officially becoming an hybrid club.

See below for a replay of the session, hosted by Positively Impacting Lives Toastmasters in South Florida, District 47.

A presentation at Positively Impacting Lives Toastmasters in South Florida

Many clubs will likely try the hybrid format as a transitional measure coming out of the pandemic, but that does not mean they have to or ought to commit to the hybrid format long term.

My concern is that clubs not stumble into hybrid club operations without thinking through the required equipment and logistical challenges — as well as non-technical issues like moving changing the club culture away from being a community club that identifies with a specific city to accepting visitors and members from anywhere.

While there are advantages to being able to cast a really wide net on a global basis, there are also tradeoffs like having to compete for members with every club in the world, versus just the one that meets on the other side of town. Some clubs will probably hit on a happy medium where they identify primarily as a club that meets at a given location but keep the online option as a way of retaining members who move away. Or perhaps they will attract members who may be distant but have an affinity for the people in the club or the expertise of its members.

All I’m saying is think it through carefully before you go redo your club charter paperwork. We do have an opportunity to experiment during this time when Toastmasters International has relaxed a lot of its rules out of necessity.

If you’re not really sure whether hybrid is the right way for your club to go long term, try it out a few times before you make a commitment.

Of course, if you do take the plunge, I’d urge you to get a more powerful website that offers a lot of support for online and hybrid club operations. But I’d tell you you need a better website if you stick to a traditional club format, too.

One Postcript to the Video

I purposely showed some expensive equipment options during my presentation to force club leaders to think how much they’re willing to spend. However, I should note that the wireless clip-on microphone I showed — while it comes highly recommended — is a top-of-the-line choice that was recommended by Moira O’Brien but is far from the only choice in that category. You could get a less expensive wired or wireless microphone, place it on a mic stand, and have all speakers come to the mic. There are lots of options, and you’ll have to experiment to see what works in your meeting room and with your available budget.

Related Resources

Hybrid Harmony,” by David F. Carr, DTM, Toastmasters Magazine, April 2021

Technology for Hybrid Meetings,” by Cajetan A. Barretto, DTM, Toastmasters Magazine May 2021

Markus Seppälä YouTube playlist of hybrid meeting tips

Markus Seppälä equipment recommendations

Don’t Get Overwhelmed by WordPress

To my sorrow, I often find that Toastmasters leaders who signed up to create a club website on Toastmost.org but didn’t publish it never got past the first few steps in the process. Although few have told me directly, my suspicion is that these would-be WordPress webmasters are overwhelmed by the number of choices available.

I’m writing this as a plea not to be overwhelmed, with some clues about how to keep the process manageable. Persevere, and you can create a website that dramatizes the value of your club and also helps you organize your meetings.

The point of creating a WordPress-powered site is that you get access to a lot of tools for digital marketing and recruiting, along with agenda management reimagined for this era of online and hybrid meetings. The tradeoff is that the software can serve lots of different purposes, and the number of menus and buttons you see on the administrator’s dashboard is scary for some people. (Regular members will see a much less complicated dashboard, with access to a few functions like updating their profile and password).

Here’s why you shouldn’t be afraid:

  • If you’re just getting started, take advantage of the website setup wizard, which tries to walk you through some basic choices for the setup of your agenda and whether you want to invite guests to register online to attend your meetings.
  • Take the time to customize your home page, telling the world what’s special about your club. The WordPress editor is essentially a web-based word processor — nothing to get overwhelmed about. Learn just enough about WordPress content blocks that you can elements like images and subheadings, in addition to paragraph text.
  • Activate few if any plugins. The extensibility of WordPress is one of its strengths, and Toastmost has a number of plugins necessary for operation of the service turned on by default. I’ve made many additional, optional plugins available, but turning on too many of them will slow down your website and can cause other problems. Use them judiciously.
  • Focus on the essentials. You don’t need to explore every menu option and setting. On Toastmost, I try to make sure accounts start out with reasonable defaults.
  • Most of the settings you might want to change will be on one of two Settings screens, the one for RSVPMaker and the one for Toastmasters. The Toastmasters Settings screen is where you would specify your officer list, for example, and allows you to designate additional site administrators.
  • To edit your standard agenda, go to the Events Templates submenu under RSVP Events. The individual events are listed under RSVP Events, but your regular meetings typically start out as copies of a template that defines your standard meeting format. Change the template, and you’ll be prompted to update all the events based on that template. (See this article).
  • Remember I’m here to help. Post questions to the Facebook group. Or write me with questions at david@wp4toastmasters.com. If I don’t respond promptly, email again and try text or WhatsApp to 954-290-6788.
  • I’m available to do Zoom tutorials, particularly if you invite other clubs in your district to join the session.

Yes, there is a lot to learn. Just keep in mind that WordPress is also a popular choice for business websites, so everything you learn on behalf of your Toastmasters club is something you can use later, professionally.

Bicycle image by Kevin Phillips from Pixabay

The Toastmost Upgrade Plan

The Toastmost service is about to get an upgrade.

Although the WordPress for Toastmasters is free and open source, most clubs that use it take advantage of the pre-configured hosting setup on Toastmost.org. I operate that service, inviting clubs to try it for free for six months, then pay for a subscription once they see the value.

Going forward, clubs hosted on Toastmost.org will be asked to invest $50 per year to cover increased costs (detailed below). If you have a current subscription, this will not go into effect prior to your renewal date (although early renewals and donations to the cause would be appreciated).

In the spirit of transparency, I’m sharing some financial details below.

Toastmost and WordPress for Toastmasters Finances

Toastmost and the WordPress for Toastmasters (the free open source software project) are volunteer initiatives led by me, David F. Carr, DTM, with support from other Toastmasters leaders.

I don’t expect to profit off this service and operate within some limitations by agreement with Toastmasters International, which doesn’t want me “profiting off the Toastmasters brand.” However, to remain healthy and growing, the service needs to be self-sustaining.

This past year, Toastmost reached break even, meaning that subscription fees approximately covered the costs of web hosting and related expenses. However, the service is operating at the limits of the current hosting setup, and I’ve been getting warnings about the need to upgrade as we come to the end of each month. The risk is that club websites could see performance degrade, and eventually there will be no choice but to upgrade.

The next level upgrade costs about double and is supposed to provide about 5X capacity. The minimum expenses I’m projecting for the coming year will rise from about $515 to $1,020 as a result. To leave some margin for error, plus the ability to make additional investments, I estimate I need to budget $1,500 to $2,000.

To get there, I’d like to at least double the number of participating clubs to 50+. To get 50 or more subscribers, Toastmost probably needs to attract 150 or more club leaders signing up for a 6-month trial account. The trial is important to give club leaders time to develop and test a website before committing to it. To attract that volume of trials means spending money on Facebook ads or other promotions to make Toastmasters leaders aware of this option.

Of course, you recommending Toastmost to other club leaders also makes a big difference — more than money can buy.

After online transaction fees, a $50 subscription payment yields about $48.25. Here’s what that looks like at different numbers of total subscribers.

Club SubscriptionsIncomeNotes
25$1,206.25Approximate break-even for upgraded hosting
30$1,447.50Enough to start paid promotion
40$1,930.00
50$2,412.50Funds additional promos, upgrades
60$2,895.00
70$3,377.50
80$3,860.00
90$4,342.50
100$4,825.00Would support another major upgrade

Write to david@wp4toastmasters.com you have suggestions on funding or can assist with other aspects of the project, such as improved documentation and training materials.

Get a Great Looking Club Website on Toastmost.org

New default designs for Toastmost.org websites

If you sign up for a new club website at Toastmost.org, it will be launched with the kind of dramatic presentation shown here — which you and your club webmaster can further enhance. You can have a great looking website in combination with innovative agenda management tools and features specifically designed to support online and hybrid clubs.

The design theme you see in the upper left of the image above (Twenty Nineteen TM) is the new default on Toastmost, but you can easily switch to one of the other supported themes.

All of the Toastmost.org themes have been reviewed for compliance with Toastmasters International brand guidelines, but each also provides you with a great deal of flexibility to make your site look the way you want it to. Some themes allow you to set a header image that appears throughout the site. The two shown above allow you to set a different featured image for each page.

To change the default featured image associated with your home page, go to the Featured Image section of the Page properties sidebar of the WordPress editor as shown here.

Option to change the Featured Image.

The Twenty Twenty TM theme makes similarly dramatic use of featured images but also allows you to display them with or without the “Cover Template” format where it covers the whole top of the screen. Here’s what it looks like with that feature turned off.

Twenty Twenty TM without cover template

Variety Within the Twenty Nineteen TM Theme

These sample home page designs were created using publicity photos from the Toastmasters International gallery of branded images. The exception is the first one on the list, which was created using an image obtained by searching Pixabay, the free public images repository, for “public speaking.”

As of May 2021, new club websites on Toastmost will get one of these images picked at random as a starting point. Club leaders are encouraged to change the default choice to one representing the character of their own club. This particular WordPress theme (design) shows featured images stylized with a blue filter, but here are some examples of how it looks with different featured images.

Changing the Theme

When logged in as administrator, you can change the design theme used by your website by clicking Customize on the black menu bar at the top of the screen, then choosing the Themes panel within the Customize tool.

With some of these themes, you would find Header Image as one of the options you can set to add a featured image to the top of the page. For example, as of this writing Digital Communicators uses the Twenty Seventeen TM theme in combination with a futuristic image of the earth from space pulled straight from a NASA image gallery.

Sign up at toastmost.org to see for yourself.

How to Register Guests on Your Website

The WordPress for Toastmasters software includes an event registration module you can use to sign up visitors and prospective members. You can capture their contact information, allowing an officer to reach out in advance of the meeting.

In addition, you can send visitors an automated confirmation message. That can include the Zoom link for online or hybrid meetings, the directions to your meeting location, or details about activities they will be invited to participate in (for example, if your club invites visitors to try Table Topics). You can test it for yourself by signing up for an account at toastmost.org, if you don’t already have one.

Here is the event invitation as it appears on the home page of Online Presenters. Online Presenters actively uses its website as a recruiting tool — and has grown into the largest of the online clubs.

As of early May 2021, adding that home page RSVP Now content block is one of the standard options offered in the setup wizard. In this post, I’ll cover how to activate this feature if it’s not already turned on. You will also learn how to customize the RSVP form and confirmation message.

Continue reading “How to Register Guests on Your Website”

Agenda Time Planner and Agenda Editing Demo (April 2021)

This is a demo of the new Agenda Time Planner tool (basics covered in the first 7 minutes of the video below) and how to do deeper editing / structuring of your agenda for maximum flexibility. Most of this is from an April 2021 workshop presentation, although I re-recorded a portion of the demo.

The Agenda Time Planner makes it easier to tweak your agenda on a week-to-week basis, for example to make room for a longer speech or a visit from a district officer. I suggest strategies for setting up your agenda so that it is easier to make those tweaks.

The full hour and a half workshop replay this is taken from is here:

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.