Online meetings: First they were challenging, then fun and exciting, and then, for some, the monotony set in.
Early last year, when clubs had to adapt to changing circumstances from COVID-19 restrictions, Toastmasters around the world responded with enthusiasm. Thousands of clubs moved their meetings online, finding fresh, novel ways to optimize against constraints. It was an adventure, something new, and we were all in it together.
But now, the adrenaline is wearing off.
At this point, many clubs have been meeting online for close to, or even more than, a year, and many members’ daily routines revolve more and more around their computer screen. As meetings and gatherings continue to be virtual, one Zoom call inevitably fades into the next, and they all start to look the same. Our eyes are tired from all that blue light, and our minds are tired of the monotony. Fatigue is setting in.
Luckily, you can counteract it. When life gives you lockdown, creativity is the key. Here are some tips to keep your virtual meetings fresh and fun, to keep growing and improving, and to keep your members coming back.
Change Things Up
As humans, we get used to things very quickly. Just think back to how strange your first online Toastmasters meeting felt—now, for most of us, we barely remember in-person meetings. Get creative! By incorporating novelty into the tried-and-true Toastmasters structure, you can help members stay engaged.
Switch up the agenda.
One way to keep people’s interest is to make sure things don’t get too predictable. “We’ll change up the agenda periodically just to keep it fresh,” says Krista Rowan of Glen Abbey Toastmasters in Oakville, Ontario, Canada. “We don’t deviate from the integrity of what Toastmasters is ... we just give it some spice.”
Her club incorporates upbeat music at breaks to keep energy levels high during online meetings. They also get creative with Table Topics®, using screen-sharing capabilities to add a personal touch to prompts—for instance, the Table Topicsmaster may display a snapshot of herself on a past beach vacation and ask the participant to describe a travel destination that he’s dreaming about—and they have even featured improv lessons, taught by a member. For more ideas on how to change up your Table Topics sessions, see the sidebar on the right.
Add a theme for variation.
Glen Abbey Toastmasters has also introduced themed meetings. Many clubs have embraced this concept, weaving a common thread through the Toastmasters’ welcome, the Table Topics session, and the Word of the Day, but online meetings allow you to take the theme even deeper. Encourage members to take advantage of technology by using virtual backgrounds, costumes, and props. Meeting participants can even change their display name to a theme-appropriate alias. For example, if you have a Disney theme, spark some smiles by labeling yourself Ariel and changing your background to an underwater scene, or add an outer-space backdrop and call yourself Buzz Lightyear.
Encourage members to take advantage of technology by using virtual backgrounds, costumes, and props.
If you’re looking for themes, holidays are always great choices. April Fool’s Day is a fun option, as are other lesser-known holidays like Pi Day (March 14), World Music Day (June 21), and World Photography Day (August 19).
You can change the way you incorporate themes into meetings, as well. While announcing the next meeting’s theme well in advance gives people time to prepare, it could add additional stress to busy members. Try announcing the theme 10 minutes before the meeting begins. This puts everyone on equal footing and encourages creativity. You’ll be amazed at the spontaneous ways your members find to participate!
Play with backgrounds.
At Invicta Toastmasters Club in Porto, Portugal, there is a good-natured competition to see who can come to the meeting with the best virtual background. Taking advantage of Zoom’s video background feature, club members create elaborate animated scenes—often featuring themselves. “We record over recorded-over screens,” says Club President Rafael Marques. Notable mentions include a member appearing to row off the screen using an office chair as a boat, “triplets” waving at the camera, and a member bringing himself a beverage in the middle of the meeting.
The creativity entertains current members, and encourages guests to return. “A lot of (new) members come to meetings thinking it’s going to be very strict and bureaucratic. When we show that we are having fun, people stay with us,” says Club Secretary and Iberian Toastmaster of the Year Sérgio Águia.
By keeping humor in the foreground, Invicta Toastmasters Club keep members coming back.
Sérgio Águia makes Invicta Toastmasters online meetings fun by creating virtual backgrounds. In the video above, he has his clones appear on the screen.
One of the hardest portions of the Toastmasters meeting to recreate online is the part that’s not on the agenda: the socialization that happens before and after the meeting or during breaks. To keep members engaged, find ways keep them connected.
Open the room early.
One of the simplest ways to encourage chitchat is to simply start the video call 15 minutes before the meeting starts, and leave it open after the formal agenda items are completed. That’s what Glen Abbey Toastmasters does. “It’s amazing how many people don’t drop off. After a two-hour meeting, people still want to talk,” says Rowan. Also, if you usually play theme music as people log on, save that music for later on in the meeting to give people time to chat before the meeting officially begins.
Create offline connection.
Members of Invicta Toastmasters Club have found another way to stay in touch, even between meetings. In a group chat open to all members, they talk, share pictures and GIFs, and even challenge each other to informal video or audio “Table Topics” throughout the week. They also keep their website updated with member bios and pictures so that new members can connect with and get to know other members.
“A lot of new members come to meetings thinking it's going to be very strict and bureaucratic. When we show that we are having fun, people stay with us.”—Sérgio Águia
“There’s a need to communicate informally that there wasn’t before,” says Club President Marques. “[The website and group chat] is something we felt like we needed to complement this lack of physical contact.”
Support new members.
Remember your first few Toastmasters meetings? Before you had everything figured out, you likely had questions—and you probably just turned to the person next to you for clarification or asked an experienced member during the break. That type of interaction is more difficult online.
Help new members find and connect with mentors, and encourage open lines of communication. Consider setting up a “New Member Session,” during which members can ask questions, get acquainted with the club, and even meet with their mentors in breakout rooms.
Continue to Improve
As you try new ways to energize your meetings and engage members, make sure to monitor the response. Ask your members what works and what doesn’t, and make changes accordingly.
The best way to keep your members engaged is to make sure you’re giving them what they want. Rowan explains the importance of gathering feedback from meeting attendees, especially guests. “When you’re familiar with a Toastmaster meeting, you don’t have the same perspective as an outsider. It’s nice to have guests’ feedback of their experience and perspective. Did they feel value in the meeting and want to return? When you’re trying to retain membership and appeal to new members you want to make sure that they’re benefiting and leaving with a good experience.”
Provide opportunities for all meeting participants to provide feedback, and encourage the General Evaluator to comment specifically on the virtual meeting format, as well.
Test and experiment.
Like Rowan, Águia also emphasizes the importance of gathering feedback from members and making tweaks in response to that feedback. Invicta Toastmasters has pioneered a hybrid model, meeting both online and in person, according to local regulations, and much of the club’s success is due to experimentation.
Águia and Marques perfected the physical setup based on feedback, rearranging the room so that in-person speakers could see the online audience projected onto a screen, and so that online speakers could see the in-person audience.
They also added a second Sergeant at Arms to handle the online portion of the meeting. The Zoom master switches between Speaker view and Gallery view as appropriate, makes sure everyone is muted, and helps with screen-sharing and other technical issues.
Their experimentation has paid off. “We’ve been doing this since July and it works,” says Águia. “It really works.” Gather feedback, experiment, and find out what works for your club.
Focus on the Human Element
Whether in person or on a machine, engage your members to keep them coming back. Connection and communication are more important than ever, and Toastmasters provides opportunities for both. Take advantage of technology to make your meetings fresh and fun, but focus on the human element. After all, “communication is the human experience,” says Rowan, “especially online.”
Megan Preston Meyer is the author of the Supply Jane and Fifo Adventures, as well as Firebrand: A Corporate Elements Mystery and ’Twas the Month Before Christmas: A Supply Chain Carol. She lives in Switzerland and is a regular contributor to the Toastmaster magazine. Learn more at supply-jane.com.