In the words of the author Charles Dickens: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
It’s been nearly a year since the devastating coronavirus arrived to change the world as we knew it. For Toastmasters used to meeting in person every week, COVID-19 initially caused chaos and confusion. Yet faced with a Hobson’s choice of going online or not meeting at all, Toastmasters across the world have risen to the challenge magnificently. More than 80% of clubs now meet virtually, so in that sense, we have enacted the best possible response to the worst of times.
As devastating as COVID-19 has been, it has spurred growth and innovation for Toastmasters, as we’ve learned to communicate through different formats. It’s yet another step forward in changing how we conduct our meetings and business—an evolution that began well before the pandemic. In fact, since joining Toastmasters, I, as well as my club and District, have literally experienced a world of change.
For example, when we chartered Chennai Toastmasters Club in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India, in 2004, all members had to share one manual. When our club kit arrived, with Competent Communication and Competent Leadership manuals for each of us, we were so excited! Our charter documents went via fax machine to World Headquarters, which was in Southern California at the time. We corresponded via snail mail, resulting in delays on both ends. Business transactions were not always simple, and necessitated navigating varying financial regulations required by both India and the United States.
My club spent hundreds of hours writing agendas and meeting notes on postcards that we mailed to members or discussed by phone over landlines. Today, that’s done with the click of a computer button.
My District, 82, initially spanned all of India and Sri Lanka, a landmass covering more than 1 million miles. Area and Division Governors, as they were called then, often traveled by train to set up new clubs. If a demo meeting was within driving distance, five of us would go, conduct the meeting, confer with club leaders and prospective members, plan for follow-up, and finally head home. Each of us paid our own way for these exploratory adventures. It added up to quite a tidy sum, but the bonding between members and the camaraderie were priceless.
When the internet was born, someone crowed, “Geography is now history!” Toastmasters has proven them right.
When I was District Governor in 2012, my leadership team lived in three cities across two countries. Skype video conferencing became a godsend, allowing us to connect for productive planning and strategy meetings.
At the same time, technology was transforming how our international organization served members. The first hybrid club meetings began to emerge, followed by some virtual leadership training. Then came the online Pathways learning experience, a distinct departure from the original, paper-based legacy program.
And then came COVID-19.
When the internet was born, someone crowed, “Geography is now history!” And boy, Toastmasters has proven them right. Our clubs and Districts enthusiastically meet virtually, joining activities in countries members have never—and may never—visit in person. Meetings draw hundreds of Toastmasters and guests. Superior programs include current or former international Board officers, World Champions of Public Speaking, subject matter experts, and other eminent presenters.
Not everyone has received the online meeting model with equal felicity. The idea of not being able to shake hands, or hug a club colleague after a long break, or even clap and applaud a well-delivered speech in person is anathema to many of us. Yet this is likely to be the new normal for the foreseeable future.
However, for many Toastmasters, COVID-19 has created an unexpected technological gateway to other clubs and cultures, improving the very skills they need to interact in a wired world. Online meetings, webinars, and podcasts offer a nearly matchless immediacy of impact. This technological competency is a useful tool in office interactions as well.
In my case, it has helped me transition to an entirely new profession as an ebook author.
COVID-19 has indeed brought the worst of times; yet this pandemic has also prompted adaptation to daunting challenges. And that is an evolution to celebrate.
Nina John, DTM is director of the coaching firm Envy Communications, and a member of the Chennai Toastmasters Club in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. She has released Navigating Corporate Seas on Kindle.