While the Covid-19 pandemic has forced the cancellation of large public gatherings and put most professional speakers out of work, our local Portage Chamber Toastmasters club found a way to continue meeting and growing our skills. Virtual meetings via Zoom started almost immediately after self-isolation began. Instead of meeting around a board table at the Community Futures Heartland office like usual, we were each in our own homes or offices. We still met at the same time, each Monday at 11:45 for one fast-paced hour. We simply clicked on the link emailed to members, sat in front of our computers or phones until all attendees faces popped up on the screen, and conducted the meeting almost as if we were together.
Since I would normally walk to the meetings, these virtual ones saved me a half hour of travel time. In seconds, I could transition from whatever I was working on in my home office to join the meeting—possibly with a quick check in the mirror first. Of course, that also meant finding another time for a daily walk, lest my Covid-19 weight gain grows into Covid-119.
When called upon to speak, whether it’s an off-the-cuff answer to a question or a longer prepared speech, it felt a little weird to not receive simultaneous feedback from your audience. Because everyone mutes their microphone until it’s their turn to speak (to minimize distracting noises), the person speaking couldn’t hear laughter or other immediate responses. While it may have felt like you were making eye contact with others, it only seemed like eye contact to others if you were looking directly into your computer’s tiny camera lens. You could say these sessions helped prepare us should we ever do television broadcasting or posting videos of our own—something more people are taking up.
I asked some of the members to name the pros and cons of these virtual meetings. Vicki Hooke said, “I am so grateful that our Toastmasters was able to continue because this gave me purpose. I volunteered to do a speech right at the beginning of the quarantine because that inspired me and kept me going for a few days. It’s also quite relaxing to have a meeting from home.”
Betty-Jean Checkley mentioned that the main thing lacking was human connection. “Without all the nuances of body language, it can be quite sterile. Initially it gave us the security that we, like children, crave with structure and routine. In the uncharted waters of the pandemic, the familiarity of gathering together was like a buoy in the water.”
Nettie Neudorf added, “For those that are nervous in front of people, I have seen them be more relaxed in a virtual meeting. Each user’s level of understanding of the technology affects the overall meeting experience. There are more distractions in a virtual meeting than in person. I have got to see some members’ personal space in the background. That helps me see their world (literally) and learn more about their personality than I do in a professional setting.”
All agreed that we’re grateful for the technology that allowed us to finish our season strong and for this opportunity to become more comfortable with that technology. Despite the unique chance to see into others’ homes and in some cases meet their pets and puppets, the overall consensus seems that “in person” will always be best. We look forward to the day we can speak face to face again. Either way, we’ll reconvene in the fall.
Local friends, if you want to improve your public speaking skills in a safe and supportive environment, Toastmasters always has room for you. Call Cindy at (204) 857-7778 for more information.