District 60 Toastmasters post-conference report

Toastmasters International

This weekend just past was the annual spring conference for District 60 Toastmasters. I was on the conference committee with the responsibility of organizing the workshops part of the conference programme, and on top of that ran a workshop myself on the subject of creative Table Topics. As someone who had responsibility for how the conference turned out, I feel that I should write up a post-mortem of my part of the work, in order to better evaluate how well I did and where I have room for improvement.

What worked well

Processing received proposals. Despite a few difficulties, extracting the data from proposal submissions and putting it into the tracking documents was fairly simple. While the system for tracking and managing workshops fell apart later on, at least at the beginning it was easy to get stuff in.

I was also able to leverage SkyDrive so that other committee members could review the proposals as well, and make suggestions as to which ones to approve or otherwise discuss.

Equipment and room setup management. This was fairly simple. From the get-go, we made sure to note that while the conference could supply certain equipment, presenters would have to bring their own projectors if they needed them. Still, we made sure to have a couple backups just in case. Things worked out well for this.

Mail merge. Never underestimate the value of form communication. With the proposal tracking documents, it wasn’t too difficult to handle one-way communication. Both the Excel spreadsheet and Access database loaned themselves well to producing emails I could batch send to presenters.

Workshop packages. Other than an envelope-related hiccup, I was able to manage the process of putting together workshop packages fairly easily. Each package simply contained timing cards and a gift for the presenter. On each envelope I affixed a sheet of paper with relevant information, so that workshop sergeants-at-arms would pick up the correct packages.

What needs improvement

Communication, communication, communication! That old nemesis of mine, email communication, caused quite a bit of trouble during the planning stages, as well as making things very uncomfortable for me in the week leading up to the conference. Not only were a number of workshop proposals lost in the mail (at least two that I was informed of after it was too late to add them in), but the response time for replies – both for emails sent to and from me – made miscommunications more frequent and troubling than I would prefer.

For the next time I am in charge of an event’s programme (or part of it) I need to ensure that I communicate regularly and more frequently with presenters, fellow committee members, and other stakeholders, and to do so by phone more often than by email.

Submission Process. Between the MIA proposals and hand-written, scanned in ones, the submission process was plagued with problems. Hopefully for future conferences we can move away from the current proposal form as the primary method and onto a web-based submission system instead. At the very least, it would be good to use PDF forms technology, which would allow for easier processing of proposal submission data.

I’ll just note there’s nothing wrong with the form itself, but relying on email submissions of it is simply asking for trouble.

Workflow. At the start of planning for the conference, I adopted the workflow used by past workshop chairs. Unfortunately, the workflow was too ridden with cracks that things could slip through, due to the fact that it was nothing more than a simple Excel spreadsheet. I kept modifying the spreadsheet as I needed to track more and more, but each change was nothing more than a kludge, which in the end only increased my manual workload.

Eventually, I replaced the spreadsheet with an Access database which allowed me to track workshops, presenters, and other team members easily, as well as create reports that allowed me and others to see the status of workshop programming at any time. Hopefully the person handling workshops for the fall conference will have Access and be able to use this workflow.

Sidebar: Creative Table Topics (my workshop)

On Saturday morning, I was able to conduct an hour-long workshop on Table Topics. More specifically, a workshop on how to run a fun Table Topics session by reviewing sources of ideas for crafting unique and creative topics for each meeting. Because of all the work I was putting into organizing things with Ad Astra and the workshop programme for the conference, I wasn’t able to organize my workshop as well as I would have liked. However, my observation was that the workshop attendees thoroughly enjoyed themselves and the activities I presented.

This workshop needed no notes for me, no hand-outs, no visuals. Rather, I guided the attendees through various activities to help them identify and build on ideas for producing Table Topics “decks”, as well as ran them through various different ways to actually run the game. While it wasn’t that well attended (actually, for a 9:15am workshop I probably got a decent number of people in the room) nobody left part-way through, and everyone left satisfied and ready for their next time as Table Topics Master.

Summary

Despite the crossed communiqués, the stress of the final week before the conference, and the feeling that I didn’t give enough attention to the conference in the last couple weeks (due to all my preparation work for Ad Astra just the weekend before), I think things went very well for the district conference. We had a lot of happy Toastmasters attending, and with workshop presenters coming from as far away as Quebec or North Carolina, a lot more could have gone wrong than actually did.

I am proud to have helped out District 60 with the 2013 spring conference, and I look forward to helping out with organizing the fall conference as well.