What Could Go Wrong?

The Story of the Port in the Storm

By Carolyn Johnson, VP of PR, Chiltern Speakers

March 2020

Our club was burgeoning.  We had had a bumper January of guests, an Open House in February, and March saw our new members standing up front taking the first steps of their public speaking journeys in front of a friendly and substantive live audience.

Our committee had worked hard over the previous months to build a better new member  experience.  We lined up the VP of PR and the VP of Membership to attract guests to meetings and follow-up afterwards with a slick sign-up process.  We created a new ‘Hospitality’ role to ensure guests were welcomed and introduced to a member or two so they had someone to talk to and engage with during the evening.  Our President would give each guest a special welcome in his meeting introduction and ask them to say a few words at the end about their impressions.

We focused on celebrating the victories with standing ovations for Icebreakers and awards with photos and social media accolades for best speakers, evaluators and Table Topics.  We laughed heartily with our speaker journey fellows inside the disciplined structure of our Toastmaster sessions and watched each other grow.  Then went to the pub afterwards.  What could go wrong?

The Transition

We no longer have a live venue, we no longer have the lively face-to-face interaction, we no longer have the pub.  We no longer have that excited and slightly anxious drive, or walk, to the meeting, we no longer have that post-meeting reward and joy of reflection on our way home.  So what has become of our club in this new world cohabiting with Covid-19?

As soon as it became clear that society would need to head indoors, right as March membership renewal was approaching, we knew we had to create a vision, with an element of certainty, or the club could suddenly end up on a trajectory of contraction we really did not want.  There is no way we did all that work to have it wiped away by a disease!

So we fired up our laptops and downloaded Zoom.  Luckily for our club, we have club leaders who like to explore new avenues and try things out – and this was just what we needed.  Our committee, along with members from other clubs in our Area, spent evenings and weekends working through a trial-and-error system of devising a new Toastmasters online meeting.

Which aspects of a meeting could we retain?  Which aspects are hard to emulate? What tactics could we employ to mitigate the ‘losses’? What could we actually gain?

It became very quickly obvious that this learning experience could be embraced and shared.  New skills mastered that are directly applicable to the fast-tracked remote workplace and the sudden explosion of all generations of people driven online.  We have a new Toastmaster meeting role – that of the ‘Zoom Master’ – skills gained here which can be shown off in work meetings when someone wants a poll, or a team needs a break out room, or a recording for future reference.  Meeting recordings have become a much-valued asset!

And our VP of PR suddenly had a new wave of material to attract new members – our Facebook feed became enriched with new learnings and images of social interactions at a time when everyone was locked down and restricted from human connection.  People could join in at the click of a button on their PC – not just at their local Toastmasters club, but at ANY club!  How to travel and meet people from different parts of the world, whilst sitting in your own armchair? Here was the answer!  Make connections with people in Mumbai, Vancouver, Barcelona? Yes please!

Oh and it wasn’t all swimmingly successful – the technical issues have had us puzzled a number of times with audio-visual gremlins and connectivity blips, and then there is lighting, positioning, eye contact to get right.  Then came the Zoom-fatigue phenomenon – so we had to get creative with physical actions, visual variety, recorded applause, dressing up, blowing kisses at your Zoom neighbour! (Yes we really did that…)

Suddenly the emails started coming in and Facebook messages popping up – can we come along to your next meeting? Send me the Zoom details!  Prospective new members, former members who had moved away and wanted to check back in and members from other clubs who want to try out new audiences.

August 2020

So where are we now?

Membership is up! Diversity is up! Fun and learning lives on!  We have the most members we have ever had at 41, with regular attendance at 25 people or more including 3-4 guests.  Our club came second in the Beat the Clock competition to gain the most new members before the end of June.

Yes sure we have a few members taking a break, and new chatter has begun about when and how we will get our much-loved in-person format back – but the online format has not only taken away, but it has given.  It has given us new and different opportunities – and it turns out that people are willing to embrace them.  It has provided us with a much loved Port in a Storm.