Many Toastmasters leaders are having to come up to speed quickly on how to conduct meetings and contests online because of the current public health crisis.
As the founding President of Online Presenters Toastmasters, I can offer some perspectives on the advantages, disadvantages, and practical complications of meeting online. I love my online club because it has allowed me to meet people from all over the world, while practicing skills that are useful in business meetings conducted online and for hosting webinars and similar online events. In this particular moment, it may also be good practice for functioning if your workplace goes #SuddenlyVirtual.
On the other hand, one of the best things about Club Awesome, my local Coral Springs, Florida club, is that attendance gets me out of my home office and into the community. I’m sure many community clubs will miss bringing everyone together in person — and will try to get back to that as soon as possible.
Still, you might learn a few things in the process. For what it’s worth, there is a Pathways project related to managing online meetings.
Budget and Choice of Video Meeting Platforms
Zoom is the most popular choice with online Toastmasters clubs, several of which started with another tool, then switched. Corporate clubs might also consider using Microsoft Teams, which includes a good video meeting tool. There are many other options, and your choice might be driven by whether a club member has an account they can share for club use.
Do you have money in your budget to pay for one of these services? Zoom does have free accounts that support up to 100 simultaneous users, but in the free version meetings are limited to 40 minutes. You might try to get that limit lifted under a program Zoom has announced for educational organizations. Or you might hold shorter meetings. Or structure a longer meeting as a series of < 40-minute meetings, maybe taking a 5 minute break in between segments.
The basic paid Zoom plan that eliminates the time limit costs just under $150 per year (or $14.95 per month, which might make sense if you consider it to be a temporary expenditure).
Challenges About Meeting Online
Watch out for these issues:
When you have a lot of people in an online meeting and they all have their mics turned on, you run into feedback and other distortions as well as distractions like barking dogs, crying babies, and the sirens of passing ambulances.
For that reason, we typically recommend that everyone mute themselves when they are not speaking. In Zoom, the buttons to turn your mic and camera off and on are in the lower left corner.
The absence of sound creates its own challenges for the speaker — when you say something funny, you don’t hear the laughter and may have no idea whether anyone other than you thought it was funny. (Sometimes you can see people laughing, though).
Also, once muted, meeting participants often start speaking without turning their mic back on. If they have a hardware mute/un-mute switch on their computer or headset, they may get confused about why no one can hear them and take a minute to get it straightened out.
One Zoom-specific tip I just learned recently is that when your mic is muted, you can un-mute temporarily by holding down the space bar on your computer. As soon as you release the key, you will be muted again. Perfect for delivering a timer’s report or making a quick comment!
As a meeting host, you will also have to deal with people who forget to turn off their mics before walking away from their computer and doing something noisy. Zoom provides meeting hosts and co-hosts with a “mute all” button (mute everyone but yourself) and the ability to mute participants selectively, as needed.
Do You Need a Headset?
I currently use a wireless headset that plugs into the USB port of my laptop. Other members simply use the microphone and speaker built into their computer. I’ve often advised using cheap earbuds as a simple way of getting better sound and avoiding audio feedback.
You may have to experiment to find out what works for you. Do you get better sound with the headset? Or would you rather not enter the meeting looking like an air traffic controller?
If you go without a headset, try to find a quiet place for your participation in the meeting.
The role of Timer takes on some added complexity in an online meeting. The timer can show green/yellow/red timing signals by holding timing cards up to the screen, but tricks of lighting can make green and yellow look the same. A bigger problem is that the speaker may loose sight of the video feed from the timer. For example, when a speaker is screen sharing or showing slides, the timer’s image may be bumped off screen.
At Online Presenters, the experienced Timers tend to use a virtual background images that are green, yellow, and red. We also offer the speaker the option of getting an audible signal at each timing milestone.
Video and Visuals
Most laptops come with a built-in camera and mic. Your smartphone probably has a great camera built in. External webcams are available for desktop computers and may give you better quality on a laptop. An external webcam that can be mounted on a tripod may be helpful if you’re trying to set up a camera in a meeting room where those physically present will be interacting with remote participants.
Inadequate lighting tends to be a bigger issue than the quality of your camera when it comes to what people actually see on screen. You may find yourself investing in additional lights for whatever space you use to join an online meeting.
Pay attention to how your face will be framed by the camera and what other participants will see in the background.
I often see people angling the camera so it’s looking up their nose or cutting off the top or bottom of their face. One tip for laptop users is to place a couple of thick books under your computer so that you raise it to closer to eye level.
Frequent online meeting participants may use virtual background software (a basic version of which is built into Zoom) to replace a messy office with a photograph of some more attractive or fanciful scene. There are tutorials on the Online Presenters site about how to do that, but if you’re new at this I’d recommend trying to position yourself in front of a plain white wall, if you have one, of some other scene that’s not too distracting.
Maintaining eye contact with your audience is difficult because your camera is not where the images of the people you’re speaking to are. Most laptops have the camera peering through a pinhole lens above the screen. That means if you try to look into the eyes of my onscreen image, you will appear to be looking a few degrees down.
There are various techniques for trying to compensate, but my simplest recommendation is to periodically try to look directly into the camera to create the illusion of eye contact for your audience. Warning: it will feel unnatural, and you probably won’t be able to do it the whole time.
Group Chat and Voting
Most online meeting platforms include a text chat function, along with the video. This can be useful for back channel communications, or to share links to online resources.
At Online Presenters, we appoint a Chat Monitor as an additional meeting role so someone is watching what is going on in the chat and can alert the meeting organizer to any problems being highlighted there. The Chat Monitor gives a report at the end of the meeting to tell people what they might have missed.
Some members value a lively chat going on parallel to the meeting, while others find it distracting and think it should be discouraged when a speaker is speaking. You’ll have to find your own balance.
For voting in regular meetings, we use private chat messages to the vote counter. For contests, we use an online voting tool (see below).
Most online meeting platforms, including Zoom, allow you to participate in an online meeting using a mobile phone app, rather than a computer. Given a choice, I would recommend you use a computer as the better experience.
Online clubs conduct their contests online as a matter of routine, but many other clubs, areas, divisions, and districts are currently hustling together plans to go online with events that were originally meant to be traditionally staged. I am on a technology advisory committee for my home district, but there is a lot we are still figuring out.
You can see a replay of last year’s Video Speech Contest from Online Presenters as an example that may spark ideas.
A few thoughts:
- One practical approach might be to have contestants and a few other functionaries physically present in one location but the judges and other functionaries watching remotely. That would minimize crowd size but still allow speakers to deliver their presentation more naturally, from a standing position.
- The online judging and vote tabulating tool I created particularly for online contest use may be useful in this context. For compliance with the official rules, it may be necessary for judges and timers to still fill out and sign paper documents, take a picture, and email or text that image to the chief judge. (I’m trying to get a ruling from TI on whether my tool’s method of submitting scores can be considered a “digital signature” under their rules.)
- For some reason, the rules state that all audience members must mute themselves and turn off their cameras while the speaker is speaking. I anticipate imperfect compliance with this rule and hope TI will be understanding.
Zoom How-To Tips
Because I and most of my Toastmasters teammates have the most experience conducting online meetings in Zoom, we have some particular tips for that environment.
I created this tutorial for my home club, which will be conducting its first all-online meeting March 20 (just as a test at this point).
My friend Chris Guld, a member of Online Presenters as well as Early Bird Toastmasters, created this tutorial on Zoom basics. She and her husband Jim run Geeks on Tour, a technology training business, so this is a very professional introduction.
Keep It Simple
There is a lot to learn, but do not feel you have to tackle it all at once. Study up, coach your members, and encourage everyone to be patient with each other while you learn. Try to get the benefits of the online tools without allowing them to detract from our mission of better communication and leadership.
David F. Carr, DTM, was the District Webmaster for 2019-2020. He is a Past President and VPE of Club Awesome in Coral Springs, FL, the Charter President and current Treasurer of Online Presenters Toastmasters, and the organizer of the WordPress for Toastmasters open source software project.
David is a writer and editor with years of experience at technology trade publications such as Internet World, Baseline Magazine, and Information Week. He wrote the book Social Collaboration for Dummies and has keynoted at technology conferences internationally. See davidfcarr.com