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How our club transformed to online

The COVID crisis brought unexpected challenges, our club found itself at a crossroads.
Vladimír Záhradník
June 23rd, 2020 · 11 min read

It was March 9, 2020, and the officers of the Toastmasters Košice club had its meeting. It was only a few days after I organized a successful event with a guest from Bratislava. I have been monitoring the COVID situation in China for a long time and evaluating the risks for myself. At the meeting, I announced a discussion on coronavirus as the first item on the program.

“Hello, I would like to inform you that I will not be attending the next club meeting in person. I have been monitoring the situation closely for a long time, and I do not want to take any more risk, which is even higher for me because I travel by train. I suggest we cancel Monday’s meeting and evaluate the situation when we have more information.”

The others looked at me, blankly. One replied, “Vlado, aren’t you exaggerating a little?” I stood by what I said: “At the moment, we do not know what awaits us and how serious the situation will be due to the coronavirus. If I was still employed and my employer was still waiting for what would happen, I would come to my manager and announce that I’ll be working from home the next day. Yes, you heard me right — announce. The nature of my work makes it possible. And if he threatened to fire me, so be it. I don’t understand how other employees can just wait on their superiors to make decisions about their health.”

The debate continued. Some made it easier; others did not take a clear position. In the end, I was outvoted. “We will keep the Monday meeting,” they said.

The very next day, March 10, however, the situation changed rapidly. People from Tabačka called us, where we rent space. They advised us to consider canceling the events given the situation. I remember the president of the club writing to me then asking what we would do. I made it clear: “We should cancel the club meeting, but you, as president, should make this decision.” She immediately instructed me to cancel the meeting. I wrote the message that I sent to the members in a flash, and at the same time, I posted the announcement on our social channels.

The next club meeting is moved. We are monitoring the situation regarding the threat of coronavirus in Slovakia very closely and have decided to approach it responsibly…

Club meeting cancelled
The announcement about cancelling the club meeting

I think we have reacted flexibly. I am pleased that the initiative came from our side before the state issued the regulation. At the same time, we issued a joint opinion of the club not to participate in the planned competition of clubs in Trenčín. However, I did not have time to inform the organizers. A state of emergency was declared in just a few hours, and all public events were canceled. The next meeting was canceled, and due to the situation, all the following meetings too. None of us knew how long it would last. It was initially said that the restrictions would last for two weeks, and we decided to wait. However, the regulations continued to apply, and even more so, they were tightened up. If our club, which relies on personal meetings, wants to survive, it must quickly transform into an online environment.

Among the Toastmasters’ clubs, the vast majority have stipulated in their statutes to meet in person. However, some clubs work online. Though, these internet clubs have an exception. According to Toastmasters rules, our club cannot conduct a meeting online. Well, it can, but it will not be considered an official club meeting.

Sometime in early March, a guideline came from Toastmasters International headquarters: “Dear club leaders, we are in an unprecedented situation, and we need to close up. With immediate effect, we grant an exemption for online meetings to all clubs until further notice.”

The first good news. We had the blessing of our parent organization to conduct meetings online. They even provided basic guidelines and recommendations on what the meeting should look like in the short term. The online environment is completely different than when you meet in person and see each other.

A few days later, I received invitations to two online meetings. The first meeting was a panel discussion with online club officers who shared their experiences of conducting online meetings. The next one was a model online meeting of Toastmasters organized by our district (superior administrative unit, which also includes our club). I attended both events.

The panel discussion brought very specific tips, and I wrote down several of them. However, I still have awkward feelings from the model online meeting. I was only there as a guest, my camera and microphone were turned off, and I wanted to see if the meeting could interest me as a guest. However, I gained valuable knowledge. I knew that transforming into an online environment would not be easy. And it can very easily happen that even in our meetings, the guests will be bored and stop attending.

I found some observations:

  • If you don’t have the camera on, you will naturally focus less. You don’t expect anyone to talk to you.
  • If you have the camera turned on, you pay better attention. But you can also quickly get bored.
  • Because you’re on your computer all the time, you’re quickly losing focus. You have the urge to minimize the meeting window and read websites or do other activities.
  • By the end of the meeting, I listened only out of inertia, and I don’t remember much.

When we combine my observations with those from the panel discussion, we get the following recommendations:

  • The meeting must be shortened as much as possible. People lose attention much faster than in a personal meeting.
  • The meeting should not last more than an hour and a half. If you still want a longer meeting, take at least a 10-minute break in between
  • It is not enough to transfer the meeting format from the physical to the online environment without any changes.

Membership renewal

The coronavirus came at the worst possible time. The moment when memberships were being extended for half a year. It could’ve easily happened that half of the members would’ve suddenly quit, and the club would’ve started to decline. People in our parent organization, Toastmasters International, were also aware of this, so they extended the deadline for paying the membership fee until the end of April. It didn’t quite help. Most clubs, including ours, recorded the departure of members. At the end of April, eleven members left our club. Only ten of us stayed.

Several of the quitters had not been active before, only paid the membership fees. However, we still felt a loss. Other clubs were in a similar situation. However, there were still enough of us to continue the meetings.

Mutual meetings that bring us closer

The first clubs began experimenting with online meetings as soon as the guidance came that they could do them and that Toastmasters International recommended it. However, we waited a while longer. I asked members in the poll if they would be willing to attend online meetings and the reactions were embarrassing. When many still thought that the restrictions would last only a short time, this was to be expected.

However, I used my time effectively. I attended other Slovak clubs and gained practical knowledge from the meetings. Soon, unofficial and later official lists of Toastmasters meetings around the world began to emerge. During the day, you could travel virtually to Japan, Russia, or the United Kingdom. You could improve in foreign languages ​​or just actively listen. I see this mutual convergence of clubs across geographical borders as the biggest positive of the current situation.

The club’s first online meeting

Our first meeting took place on March 30, 2020, almost a month after the last one. We may have started a bit late, but we did well. The meeting was attended by seven members and one guest from the partner club. We chose Zoom as the video platform. I was actually solving their security problems at that time, and I still don’t consider the platform safe. However, I had to admit that their video calls work flawlessly and that anyone can easily use the application.

At that time, I had already had several online meetings. And before our meeting, I made a few recommendations: “We must pay attention to the length of the meeting. When I was at a district meeting, I was bored. We must avoid this.”

Following the agreement, I introduced several changes to the meetings:

  • I reduced the number of prepared speeches to two per meeting.
  • Also, I canceled the competition for the best speaker and evaluator of the evening.
  • I have proposed to reduce the opening chair session to an absolute minimum.
  • I suggested holding the meeting informally and energetically.

Later, we built upon these changes and gradually changed the structure of the meeting.

First online meeting
First club's online meeting

At the first meeting, we started connecting half an hour before the start of the meeting so that everyone had enough time to set up the camera and microphone. From the next meeting, we reduced this time to only 15 minutes. The informal debate before the meeting helped to set up an overall positive atmosphere. I dare say successfully.

After the first meeting, we had a debate with the members of the club. We asked how they evaluate the meeting and what they would improve and change. We agreed that the length of the meeting was just right. Simultaneously, if there are only two speeches at the meeting, the members progress more slowly in their education. So how did we deal with this issue? Simply — we agreed not to meet every two weeks from now on, but every week. It meant more work for me, but I realized that the advantages far outweighed the disadvantages.

I will visit you, and you will visit me

Mutual visits continued. One week I went to Žilina, another week to Levice or Banská Bystrica. Others did the same. Several guests from other clubs told us that they would visit us for a long time, but Košice was too far away for them. But suddenly it worked. This crisis has brought the clubs closer together.

Photo from online meeting
Image by Shutterstock, modified to include a photo from our club's meeting

Other clubs began to invite guests from other clubs actively. They usually had 20-30 people from all over Slovakia at the meeting. Some even started making joint meetings between the two clubs, and those from the neighboring Czech Republic also took part. We chose the opposite approach. We did not actively invite guests. The intimate, informal atmosphere of the meeting suited us. That set us apart from the others. Sometimes, however, I did not resist. I approached a few acquaintances from partner clubs or recommended it to others. A guest from another club can provide a unique view of your club. And whether he evaluates a member’s speech or the overall level of the meeting, he can offer a lot. The guest sees your meeting at a distance, and that is their greatest added value.

Practice makes perfect

As the meetings continued, we improved the program more and more. We managed to finish our meetings in under an hour and a half, whereas other clubs still approached the limit of two and a half hours. Once, when I was at a club meeting in Levice, I finally told them: “I liked the meeting, but it was too long for my taste. Ours are only about an hour and a half long. “Another guest reacted to my statement and added with a smile: “Then you better not even go to ours. Our meetings are even longer.”

Later, I spoke with our vice president of membership. She told me that she could no longer even imagine that we would return to the old ways after the crisis: “I like that dynamic,” she said.

So when you bring a meeting to an online environment, you have two options: maintain the status quo or innovate, be creative, and experiment. We chose the second option, but many others just swapped the teahouse for Zoom. I don’t think that’s enough.

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change — Charles Darwin

During the online meeting, our club gained two new members; people who have never experienced a personal meeting loved our meetings’ atmosphere so much that they decided to join the club. Personally, I am not convinced that I would have entered the club like this if I had not known about it. However, this tells me that we have chosen the right approach.

Videos as a form of PR

One of the benefits of meeting online is that recording a meeting is a matter of one click. I tried to record a meeting in Žilina for the first time, and we also broadcast it on YouTube. And since our third online meeting, I’ve started recording ours regularly. Always as unlisted videos, available only through a direct link only for our members.

I don’t post videos as public because not every member wants it, and the last thing I need is to scare people away. However, recording meetings has many advantages. The speaker can listen to their speech and see it as a spectator. It’s a great way to discover mistakes and imperfections. Later, the speaker can work to remove them. Without the recording, they would only rely on someone else’s verbal evaluation. And you know what they say, “Better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.”

Although I did not have permission for the whole meeting’s publication, I began to ask for individual speakers’ consent for specific speeches. Many did not consent, but some did. I started editing the meeting videos and posting them on our YouTube channel.

Miroslava Hrešková: What intrigued me in Japan (in Slovak)

I’m currently trying to produce at least one video from the meeting. I believe in the power of videos, and I think that we can attract new guests in this unconventional way.

Other clubs have experimented with posting entire meetings on Facebooku. Their members didn’t mind. However, I think our way is better. Few people will watch a two-hour recording of a meeting unless they know the speakers personally or were actually there. On the other hand, a short 7-minute video will convey the meeting’s atmosphere, introduce the club, and acquaint the viewer with what it looks like at our meetings. We are just getting started at the moment, but the results are promising. A lady from Říčany near Prague has already come to one meeting. She saw my speech and wanted to get to know us, at least from a distance.

Nationwide webinars

The current crisis has transformed many things and made us think about new approaches. Our area directors (several Toastmasters clubs belong to the area) have started to organize webinars, which address, for example, topics on how to kickstart the club for better results. The point is that club leaders from all over Slovakia come and solve problems together. I think that this initiative will continue. Such a webinar used to last an hour and a half, but the subsequent, already voluntary discussion, often as well. Many of us left after midnight, just to get some sleep.

Competitions and elections

During this crisis, we also had to change the way competitions are organized and how club leaders are elected for the next term. All such activities currently take place online, mainly through Zoom. However, for video contests, the video conferencing requirements are higher than for a regular meeting. For example, you need to separate the contestants, so they don’t know each other and don’t hear others’ speeches. At the same time, you need to ensure the anonymity of the jurors. It wasn’t easy, but we did it.

On May 18, we had new management choices in our club, also online. Just two days before, I had taken part in the online elections for the whole district and noticed the know-how. I learned how to ensure the vote’s anonymity and verify that only eligible members voted. Overall, being able to take part in such elections helped me a lot. The elections also went smoothly in our club, although I slightly adjusted the procedures for our club’s needs.

And what next?

It is the end of June. The restrictions on public gatherings have significantly disappeared. We will meet again in person after almost three months—next week. Like the transition to the online environment, the transition back is challenging. But with honest work and preparation, we can do it.

However, I began to realize the benefits of online meetings. The speaker will learn completely new skills, such as looking into the camera, interacting with the audience, and, generally, how to get used to talking in an empty room.

Personal meetings in front of a group of people are completely different. This crisis has given us a chance to see online meetings’ potential, and I would like us to keep them in some form. Although only occasionally. Time will tell which way we’ll go, but I’m glad to be there.

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