On The Hill: Radar Hill Blog

Toastmasters International - Supporting a Winning District

Est. reading time 4 minutes

When it comes to community involvement — or even just getting together and doing the things we enjoy — we’ve all had to work a little harder and find some creative solutions when it comes to organising. Something I’ve had some personal experience with.

For a long time now I’ve been involved with Toastmasters International, a non-profit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network of clubs. 

Usually, the format is a club meeting every week or every other week, depending on the club, with Club, Area, District, and Division level speech contests being held in the Spring for people to test their skills. Of course because of COVID-19 everything changed. 

Not only that, but we were having to adapt and change things quickly, as everything began shutting down right in the middle of contest season. The District wanted to figure out how do we continue to meet online, and how will the contests be run. They set up a taskforce to solve these issues, and I stepped forward to be a part of it. 

I thought it would be straightforward and simple, basically a rubberstamp. I thought I could improve a few things, have some discussions, and that’s it. Then we have the contest. I was so wrong. 

I attended a couple of area contents online and realized the depth of the issues.

For one, in a normal event, the Master of Ceremonies would direct proceedings. But during this virtual session, this mostly just meant one person monologuing and telling “jokes” while everyone else was muted. 

The second problem is these events are timed, which works great in person, but is really difficult to do online. This contest had the timer sitting back looking grumpy and holding up a piece of paper in front of the camera for a few seconds only.

The whole effect was a little awkward, a little amateur, and a poor substitute for the in-person experience. We needed a plan for how to handle these events going forward.

The issue we ran into was that if we hold up the old timing cards, with a Zoom background those cards disappear. Plus depending on the device and the screen and the resolution of the camera, the colour that one person is holding up in front of a camera may not be perceived as the same for everybody.

To solve the timing issues, we borrowed an idea from District 2 in Seattle who’d been using the virtual background function on Zoom to display the timing lights. We needed to set it up so that the speaker gets to see the timing lights at the right time, easily and simply

This was just one small part of what we had to figure out. Really, we were trying to configure the whole Zoom experience, everything from getting the judges and people into the meeting, to breakout rooms for contestants, renaming people – there was a lot that had to be done correctly.

We also had to identify what led to the previous events going so poorly. It wasn’t just a lack of the right setup, people were being forced to adapt to completely new circumstances without any preparation. A lesson we’ve all had to learn in the past few months.

We started running mock contests, where we would find an area that was having a contest and they would come to a Zoom meeting beforehand to do a trial run. We would walk through all of the details and steps we'd put in place, and a lot of the people were really struggling with Zoom, but eventually they got the hang of it.

As the contests progressed, we had to start being really specific with how we were structuring the speaking areas, as in person everyone would be sharing the same stage.

The guidelines from Toastmasters International stipulated that there were to be no virtual backgrounds, and the size of the speaking area for all contestants was to be taken from the smallest example. Meaning if one contestant is set up with a high quality camera and has 4 meters of walking space in front of the camera, but another contestant only has 1 meter and no place to move, then all contestants had to participate within that 1 meter.

The process wasn’t perfect from the beginning, and we were often having to adapt and figure it out for ourselves - what becomes the best practice? All in all, it was a very collaborative process with  mock meetings, as well as helping to host other area contests.

After each contest, the task force and contest officials held a debriefing to determine exactly what happened, what we could do better. And after each meeting, our process changed, as there was always something to tweak, to improve.

And for all that hard work we were able to put on a brilliant District Contest. All our effort came to fruition.

We also ended up organizing a couple Club Officer Training sessions which had 500 attendees from within District 21 and visitors from other districts. This exceeded our Zoom account. Online training is here to stay, and with such large numbers in attendance, we are reuniting some of the contest task force to look at our options for future training sessions.

And now District 21 is the only district in the world where 100% of the clubs in good standing have opted for online attendance. We are also number one in the world for new members, number one for Education awards, and number one for Club Growth.

Michael Bown, the head of District 21 says “I give a lot of credit to the taskforce for injecting some energy and really elevated the level and that was a huge part of the momentum that pushed us forward for those awards. So to stand number one in the Region cross the board, winning everything we could win, that’s a good spot to be in, good energy to have, and hopefully help with the recovery of Toastmasters and BC in general”

We are a Distinguished District and that’s all down to individual clubs being successful at running an online meeting. Only 5 other Districts in all of the Americas received Distinguished status – and it’s been really neat to be part of making that happen.