“I saw it as the perfect opportunity for me,” Quesada says. “Now I can participate in Toastmasters without having to worry about standing up.”
What began in 2012 with a group led by Ron Clark, DTM, that pilot-tested a potential online club, has resulted in a significant policy change for Toastmasters International and a new opportunity for people around the world. Members can now charter online Toastmasters clubs—a policy that took effect in March of this year.
Members have moved quickly. As of September 30, six chartered online clubs exist and at least five more are prospective clubs. Netizens—meaning “net community”—chartered on March 25. Five other online clubs followed: Firebirds Collective, Buddies, Great White North Online, Witty Storytellers Online and Huron Consulting Group.
In addition, traditional, brick-and-mortar Toastmasters clubs can integrate online participation into meetings. In such clubs, some members can attend the meetings online as long as the majority of members meet in person. More than 190 clubs around the world have taken this step, and more clubs are expected to follow suit in the future, according to Toastmasters International’s August 2016 CEO Report.
A Range of BenefitsIn online meetings, all members connect remotely using a software platform that allows everyone to see and hear each other in real time. People like Quesada, who have health issues that limit their mobility, are not the only ones to benefit. Online clubs are for people with busy travel schedules or those who don’t live close to a meeting site.
Six years ago, Yi Qu, a resident of Nepean, Ontario, Canada, wanted to attend a Toastmasters meeting. Even though a club was nearby, he couldn’t participate because of family responsibilities. He recently decided to start an online club, not only so he could join but also to make it easier for others. Hoping to recruit fellow Toastmasters in China, he used the WeChat app—a social media instant-messaging service—to spread the word there about the potential club. Within two days, he found 19 other interested people and the Buddies club was chartered.
Online clubs are also valuable for people looking to practice and polish their online presence. “There are a lot of professionals whose business or public success and branding depends on the quality of their video message,” says e-learning specialist Svetlana Rakhimova, CC, CL, a member of both the Firebirds Collective and Witty Storytellers clubs. “Online Toastmasters clubs are a natural medium for ameliorating this space.” Speech evaluations are expanded to consider a person’s online presence, including such factors as camera positioning, background composition and audio and visual distractions.
“One person gave a speech about swimming in the bay and used two cameras: one to show him and one for the slide show.”— LARRY J. MILLER OF THE NETIZENS ONLINE CLUB
All online clubs record their meetings and post videos in a members-only library for non-attendees to see what they missed. Doing so also provides a means for members to review and critique their own online performance and learn from others.
Another benefit of online clubs is the global nature meetings can have. “I was surprised about the international appeal of the club,” says Quesada. “Some diehard members participate even though it is the wee early hours for them when the club meets.” In the six chartered online clubs alone, at least 17 countries are represented across five continents.
All these positive aspects make online clubs an interconnected, educational and cross-cultural experience for members. When Mariana Dachova, CC, ALB, moved from Prague to the Slovakian city of Bratislava, she initiated a traditional, in-person club there. The people she worked with during this process were new to Toastmasters. Joining Netizens gave Dachova regular interaction with more advanced speakers and leaders outside of her area. For her, the online experience is a profound dynamic.
“Every meeting is a wonderful reminder of our mutual interest in effective communication, our desire in breaking the boundaries and shortening the physical distance via an online presence and also our shared experience on one planet,” says Dachova.
Similar Yet DifferentOnline meetings have the same core structure and roles as in-person club meetings, but some might have additional meeting roles. For example, online clubs might have a logistics manager to help with the technical aspects of meetings. Strong internet connection is important, as are quality devices and up-to-date settings. The online platforms used may not be intuitive to everyone and members may become discouraged. To help, clubs use tutorials, articles and individual instruction to mitigate any problems. And, similar to traditional clubs, online clubs can encounter attendance or agenda-scheduling issues; therefore, organization is essential.
In addition, Netizens co-founder Larry J. Miller, DTM, emphasizes that it’s important to think of delivering speeches as you would in traditional clubs. While it might be more challenging to show gestures and body language via a webcam, it’s not impossible. Miller has seen creative approaches that really work. “One person,” he says, “gave a speech about swimming in the bay and used two cameras: one to show him and one for the slide show.”
Engaging OnlineWord of mouth is one of the most successful ways that online clubs market themselves. Social media—particularly WeChat, in China, and Facebook—are also important communication tools. Additionally, people find chartered online clubs using the Find a Club search function on the Toastmasters website.
Just like in-person meetings, online clubs present a range of opportunities and cultural variety. All six currently chartered clubs are English-language-based. Netizens and Buddies are community clubs; Firebirds Collective, Witty Storytellers and Great White North are advanced clubs; and Huron Consulting Group is a corporate club. Among the prospective clubs are those that hold meetings in languages other than English and others that focus on specific speaking styles. It’s important to select the right type of club for you, so check for prerequisites before joining. As with all clubs, it’s also a good idea to visit—in this case, online—and see if the group is a good fit for you.
Online clubs are already making their mark and helping people around the world develop their communication and leadership skills. Their contributions to the Toastmasters mission are sure to grow in scope and impact. In response to her experience in online clubs, Rakhimova says, “I like the way Toastmasters shatters the inner walls—gently and profoundly—through the collective meeting organization and participation. We are pushed out of our comfort zones when we perform roles and deliver speeches.”
Click here to find an online Toastmasters club.
Jennifer L Blanck, DTM is a member of Skyline Toastmasters in Denver, Colorado, and a regular contributor to the Toastmaster magazine.