Toastmasters from physical to virtual

I had to transition from my Toastmasters club in presence of impending travels. How was I to proceed with public speaking development, which I had adapted like a healthy sport? I had also become fond of the people, the format, and the interaction. This was a serious dilemma.

Likewise, I didn’t find a viable local Toastmasters charter in locations I anticipated spending any significant period in. In the interim transit, I did find a number of charters to attend as a guest, which, regretfully is limiting with regard to how one can participate. Full-scale presentations and the leading roles are functions exclusive to charter members. Table topic improvisations and a few of the lesser bookkeeping roles are open to guests, but this isn’t a permanent solution.

Now, someone completely devoted to the art of public speaking will not require a membership at any physical club. Such an individual would leverage the people and the resources available, speak and present in the settings within reach, find the means to be evaluated and grow, without attending a club meeting at a predetermined time-frame. Such an individual could record own presentations even, share them among the appropriate channels, and obtain the necessary critique. Even a pure audio recording provides the context to be evaluated across significant parameters.

I recognize this and continue to consider available options. Meanwhile, I have still become attached to the Toastmasters community and curriculum. They carry a number of merits. One need not exclude the other.

Toastmasters also provides a number of virtual charters conducted over the Zoom meeting software. Similar to physical charters, some of these meet weekly, others less frequently. Some are general-purpose, others are advanced or specialized. Some may not be timezone-convenient for participants in a certain geographical region. I experimented with one such charter as a guest on a couple of occasions. The experience has been rather remarkable.

First, I was fortunate for the availability of a Linux Zoom client. Otherwise, I would have probably abandoned the entire pursuit. Or maybe not. Maybe I would have booted the Windows partition of my laptop for the meeting, one that otherwise lies dormant at least 360 days out of the year. It probably wouldn’t kill me. Just severely demoralize. I do know for certain that a mobile phone client, the other alternative, would severely degrade the experience for reasons I’ll explain shortly.

Zoom enables multiple modes of operation, but a full-featured experience demands 1) sufficient screen real-estate, and 2) ample processing power. Under ideal circumstances, Zoom renders a small live feed of every participant it can fit within the window. If configured accordingly, Zoom also displays a larger window of the active speaker/presenter. Similarly, Zoom participants can share their environment as part of a presentation, which the client can also display in a larger live window. The more live feeds your client renders, the more screen real-estate you need, and the more CPU power. My Linux instance struggles somewhat with the “full gallery mode”, so I generally render only a few participants in addition to the active presenter. As you can imagine, a small phone screen cannot facilitate much, and I have not even mentioned the other client features.

Zoom also provides a chat environment for sharing content and comments between participants, in addition to tools for sending various signals to the group: “raising your hand”, responding affirmatively/negatively, providing a poll, etc, without needing to speak. An assortment of such features makes the task of instantly distributing information across the group and sharing comments/evaluations incredibly simple. A physical meetup, on the other hand, relies on much printed and written paperwork, and complicates inter-member communication.

There is a certain charm to the bookkeeping element of physical meeting though (without yet arriving at the primary benefits). It feels raw and physically engaging. The physical meetup format demands more imagination. For example, one must squeeze the speaker evaluations into the tiny rectangular boxes of the evaluating forms. This forces the evaluator to better organize crucial elements. Votes are handled in a traditional ballot and paper-counting manner. What a waste… But it’s entertaining. The grammarian, the task which I have occasionally performed in both the physical and the recent virtual meetup, calls for significant craft in the physical environment. This role demands quick writing and synthesizing a vast array of erroneous speech excerpts across all participants, organizing the information in a way that facilitates the limited 3-minute evaluation towards the end. To the contrary, the virtual meetup format posed little challenge as I typed, reorganized, and prioritized the information lightning-fast in a VIM editor. Well, one could consider this both ways.

The physical meetup also complicates the ad-hoc communication element. Participants cannot easily interact once the meeting has commenced, not without stealthily crawling across the room to whisper comments. I enjoy this challenge somewhat, as it enables a physical aspect. The virtual meetup eliminates it as any two participants can engage in a private chat.

With regard to the actual presentations, props are significantly easier to manage in a virtual format. One can seamlessly share a digital presentation for everyone to view. With sent or pandoc, one can craft the necessary content moments before the presentation even. No need for equipment, technical malfunctions, the projector, or the white board. The virtual environment almost encourages props.

The merits of a virtual charter aside, there is one undeniable advantage to a physical club - the thrill of standing in front of a live audience. I cherish the ability to employ my entire body language, the greater scope of the stage, and most importantly, the eye contact with the audience. I want to say I thrive in it even, although the idea somewhat challenges the understanding of who I am. Alas, the virtual meeting, the full rendering capacity of all participant feeds considered, does not deliver this level of interaction. It feels artificial. At least for me, at the present moment. I imagine virtual and augmented reality to eventually narrow the gap between the two formats. However, that’s a different, although fascinating topic.

I will likely join the virtual charter as a member. The limitations are noteworthy, but so are the benefits. And as I earlier mentioned, I need not limit myself to one medium. I have the surrounding world at my disposal.