Making the Online Speech Contest work better (an open letter)

Here is my recent feedback to the Toastmasters International leadership about the recently announced Online Speech Contest, which coincided with the end of online / hybrid speaker participation in the International Speech contest.

From: David F. Carr
Date: Thu, May 30, 2024 at 7:51 AM
Subject: Making the Online Speech Contest work better
To: Board Contact <boardcontact@toastmasters.org>, Speech Contests <speechcontests@toastmasters.org>

As an online club founder and active member, I welcome the introduction of a new Online Speech Contest format as a recognition of the fact that speaking online is a distinct. And while some members may miss the option of speaking in an online or hybrid format as a contestant, I think it’s probably healthy for the organization to get back to 100% in person for the International Speech Contest beyond the club level.

However, creating an Online Speech Contest will only be a symbolic victory for those of us who celebrate the value of online speaking skills if few if any districts host such a contest — as seems likely.

Districts who are already organizing 3 or 4 contests at area, division, and district levels are unlikely to tack on an additional one that adds to their workload. I’ve heard that is the case for many Toastmasters who are members of a districted online or hybrid club but do not live in the district or can’t attend in person for health reasons. So it’s impractical for them to compete in the International Speech Contest, and the Online Speech Contest is not being supported beyond the club level.

One immediate step Toastmasters International could make to improve this situation is to exempt the Online Speech Contest from the rule that says all the contests must be held on the same schedule, with the finals at the district conference. By definition, the Online Speech Contest will not take place “at the contest,” so that requirement is irrelevant. Districts might be more willing to support the fraction of their members who want to compete in the Online Speech Contest if it could be offered on a different schedule.

I have bigger concerns that the organization is so focused on restoring past glory that it is ignoring, or even snubbing, the online and remote hybrid club members whose numbers have grown in recent years. If Toastmasters International wants to grow membership, not lose members, excluding people or acting as if their interests aren’t important won’t help.

Bigger Problems

In the long run, I hope Toastmasters International will recognize districts organized around geography are not the proper venue for an Online Speech Contest. Many of the friends I’ve met through the online Toastmasters community favor the creating of a separate district for online clubs, which would make some sense for allowing them to collaborate around the things they have in common. An alternative I’ve proposed before would be to create a virtual organization for the virtual clubs, which would also serve the members of hybrid clubs and of online clubs attached to a district.

Traditional districts, even if they get past the scheduling issue mentioned above, may not have a sufficient number of contestants from each area and division to support the traditional structure of contests at each level, leading up to a district event. The Online Speech Contest is also irrelevant to my club, Online Presenters, which was one of the original undistricted online clubs and has members from all over the world. We used to participate in the Video Speech Contest, but most of our members are ineligible because Online Presenters is not the only club they belong to (and those who only belong to OP get left out in the cold).

We’ve created our own homegrown Webinar Contest as an alternative and have invited in speakers from elsewhere, but we do that “just for fun” and to practice excellence in online speaking.

What would make more sense would be to invite club Online Speech Contest winners to compete in events equivalent to the scale of area, division, and district contests hosted by a “virtual district” or “special interest community” blessed by Toastmasters International. Ideally, there would be a progression to a world championship.

These events should be organized according to timezone, not geography. The timezone issue is one reason affiliating with a district would not be a good solution for Online Presenters. If we were to join my home district in Florida, for example, we could easily wind up with contests held at a time that might be convenient for me but a longtime member from Australia would be unable to attend. Our schedules happen to overlap at 7 –  9 pm US Eastern time, but a Florida district would likely cater to the convenience of Florida participants.

I know we have Region Directors in between districts and International, so could the Region Directors be charged with organizing such events on a regional basis? Or create an officially recognized structure to host such events. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I ask you not to ignore that this is a problem.

Online participation became a bigger part of Toastmasters than anyone wanted during the pandemic, but what we learned in the process was not all bad. Many Toastmasters gained global connections and became members of clubs with no physical location, or that were remote from their homes. Those of us who began meeting online before the crisis welcomed them and learned along with them. They should not be excluded from contest participation.

David F. Carr

President, Online Presenters Toastmasters

VP of Public Relations, Club Awesome Toastmasters

(954) 290-6788