Curated insights and facilitated collaboration for impact-driven brands
This Octogenarian is Killing it on Zoom

This Octogenarian is Killing it on Zoom

and anyone is welcome to join him in meetings 

Want to see how some of the best communicators run a large meeting effectively on Zoom? Drop in on the Naval Postgraduate School Toastmasters Club and bring a notepad.

There are thousands of Toastmasters Clubs around the world helping people develop leadership and public speaking skills, but Club #2032, based at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, stands out for its quality and its personality. The NPS Toastmasters Club has been going strong for 50 years now — it just celebrated the anniversary last month with a giant virtual party — and the locally renowned octogenarian, Carl “Thor” Thormeyer, has been a key factor in the club’s success for much of that time. Former weatherman turn Distinguished Toastmaster (many times over), Carl is the epitome of Toastmasters: a great storyteller, a thoughtful mentor, and an unyielding parliamentarian. And he is not the only one. This club is stocked with long-time members who place a high value on mentorship and promote a joyful camaraderie that is infectious. 

This dynamic (socially-focused) club has weathered the socially distant storm with grit and grace. When COVID restrictions set in, the members adapted to the new circumstances quickly and effectively. As a result they have not only maintained a well-organized and highly entertaining atmosphere, they have respectably mastered the art of audience engagement in a virtual setting. It’s honestly one of the most well attended and joyful meetings I’ve seen in the past 12 months.

Below are some of my observations about how Carl and the NPS Toastmasters are thriving during the era of Zoom…

Encouraging laughter and applause.

As many frequent speakers know, audience engagement is key to a smooth presentation. This is one of the biggest downfalls of the recent switch from in-person to virtual events: it’s less engaging to hear someone speak through a screen than it is to be in the same room with them.

I noticed this one day during an event I was attending virtually; the speaker was making some pretty funny jokes along the way, but no one was laughing. At least no one could be heard laughing…everyone’s mic was on mute. Whenever the speaker made a clever remark it was met with silence, which was awkward for everyone. Honestly, laughter is one of those things that needs to be shared. (You can probably attest to this if you’ve been living alone during COVID times — we rarely laugh out loud when no one is around to hear it.)

The NPS Toastmasters know this. Its members have a deep appreciation for laughter, and other forms of human connection, which is why they encourage participants to listen un-muted. Yes, it can be a dangerous game, but it’s really the only way to capture the spontaneous laughs and cheers that undoubtedly arise when someone delivers a great speech.

Speakers thrive on feedback from the audience, so anyone presenting via Zoom will have a much easier time if they can hear the audience’s reaction to their words. 

Using Visual Cues.

Visual cues are also important when we engage with others, no matter if it’s one-on-one or in front of a crowd. During virtual times these cues have become limited, as we only see people’s head and shoulders, or worse, a mere icon of head and shoulders. Out of habit I find myself trying to read people’s facial expressions as I’m talking, but it doesn’t always work because they may be squinting to see a small screen or looking past the screen to give their kid a death stare for interrupting. 

The NPS Toastmaster have figured out an effective hack to overcome some of the visual challenges of the virtual setting, primarily by using the background feature. Club members are encouraged to change their backgrounds, whether to display a “word of the day”, a person’s title, or an image related to the theme of the meeting (yes, every meeting has a theme!)

The most important background change comes with the role of the “timer”. Timing is a key element for Toastmasters (especially during a competition, where ending before or after the allotted time window will result in disqualification). In a typical Toastmasters meeting the timer would sit across from the speaker and illuminate a green, yellow, or red light to signal the beginning, middle, and end of a speaking window. The NPS club adapted cleverly, enacting the following steps to ensure maximum visibility:

  1. Have the timer confirm their audio, which prompts their screen to show up at the top of the main page.
  2. Have that person change their background screen (to a solid green, yellow, or red) so that the timing cues are obvious to the speaker.

These adaptations highlight the club’s ability to embrace change and persevere in its mission of providing “a supportive and positive learning experience to empower members to develop communication and leadership skills.”

Involving everyone.

Toastmasters rules basically require that everyone in the room is acknowledged (just ask Carl). The original purpose was to keep people on their toes and ensure that everyone gets a chance to practice their speaking skills, but is has also become a valuable tool for maintaining virtual engagement as well. 

When virtual meeting hosts don’t recognize attendees — even if it’s just to introduce themselves — those neglected members typically sign out (mentally or literally). My daughter had this experience when she joined an after-school club meeting for the first time this week. She logged in and sat quietly observing the whole call unfold without saying a word. It was mostly run by teenagers, so I’m not blaming them, but it made me realize how valuable a quick acknowledgement can be for improving engagement.

During these challenging times the NPS Toastmasters Club continues to stand out for its ability to foster an inclusive, fun, and supportive virtual environment. If you’d like to witness the magic of an NPS Toastmasters meetings yourself, you are welcome! The club meets every Friday at 12 PM PST, and I guarantee you will be met with open arms (and “Thor”, probably using his favorite weather cam background). 

For more info about the club see

Authors note: After reviewing the article Carl corrected me that his age is 78 1/2, so just shy of being considered a true octogenarian!

Carl “Thor” Thormeyer with his favorite weather cam background