Updated: Mar 22, 2019
In more than 30 years’ experience in internal communication, I’ve learned that one of the things employees value most is the opportunity to connect with senior leaders That’s why town hall meetings are so important; they give leaders a forum for sharing results, reviewing critical issues and discussing what employees can do to help the organization succeed.
The intention is to create an open space for employees to engage in conversations. However, the problem occurs when the meeting becomes just a series of dense, one-way presentations. And it’s made worse when one session is just the same as every other town hall.
The result is that employees start to dread town hall meetings rather than looking forward to attending them. In fact, if you were to ask employees, they might say:
“With all those charts, time moves so slowly.” “The format doesn’t change from quarter to quarter, and the content’s not very different either. I feel like I heard it all before.” “I don’t know what it means to me.” “The CEO says he wants questions, but presentations always run long and we end up with only a few minutes for Q&A.” “What do I feel when I leave the town hall? Mostly relief that it’s over.”
What a missed opportunity!
The potential of effective town hall meetings
When town halls are well run, they give employees the chance to closely interact with senior leaders, which builds trust and confidence. Town halls share content employees can’t hear anywhere else. And they bring people together to create a sense of community.
How, then, can you tap into the potential to make town halls as effective as possible?
Start with this premise: A town hall meeting is an event, not a series of presentations. In fact, the core principle is participation. Several thousand years ago, the Greeks invented the town hall (which they called an “assembly”) as a way to give citizens a voice and a role in government. Today, every town hall should be planned not just as a way to share information but as an engaging experience.
5 actions you can take to plan a meaningful town hall meeting
In many organizations, town halls have become so routine that they run almost on automatic pilot. The sessions are scheduled months in advance and, a few weeks before the town hall meeting will be held, the communicator in charge starts to work on content the meeting will cover. He or she meets with leaders, asking, “What do you want to talk about this time?”
But that’s actually the wrong question. For the town hall to be truly effective, here’s what you should ask: “What are the outcomes we are trying to achieve in holding this town hall? What do we want employees to know, believe and do as a result of participating in the meeting?”
By doing so, you’re creating focused objectives that build a strong foundation for planning a town hall meeting that’s not based on a collection of topics (see #2), but on measurable outcomes that make the session worth the effort.
Objectives like these are a great starting point for building better town halls:
Increase confidence in the company and trust in leaders
Learn about an issue that’s vital to the organization
Prepare employees to take action
One of the most common mistakes made in planning town halls is including too many topics.
It’s not unusual for organizers to put town halls together by collecting topics from key stakeholders. By the time the town hall meeting begins, there are 10 or 12 topics shoehorned into 40 minutes of presentation time. The town hall seems like a laundry list (a bulleted list of facts) or rice at a wedding (unstructured, scattered content).
Instead, ask yourself: How can you put this town hall together to raise employees’ energy and leave them feeling more motivated than when they came in?
Start by structuring the session to engage employees’ emotions. Think about which topics build energy and lift people up, and how others will require serious thought.
Plan your town hall meeting the way you would a special event or a television talk show. Start with a strong opening. Energize employees early—and give them opportunities to participate throughout the meeting, not just at the end. Instead of giving every topic equal time, create in-depth sessions on the issues that matter most. Consider telling a compelling story that brings the issue to life.
Here is an example of what I mean—an energy-creating agenda that immerses employees in a key initiative:
Welcome/introductions (5 minutes)
Thank you for great year; recognize teams that made a difference (5 minutes)
Recap 7 priorities for the coming year, give a tangible example for each (5 minutes)
Focus on customer service priority: what’s happening with our competitors, why customer service is a differentiator, how we’re working to improve our scores by 10% (15 minutes)
Employee perspectives on customer service, brainstorm initial ideas, Q&A and discussion (25 minutes)
Next steps (5 minutes)
There’s nothing more boring than old news, yet many town halls share information that employees already know. The content is as stale as last week’s bread.
The good news is this: You can create content that’s fresh and unexpected; you just need to put in a little effort. Here are three ways to do so:
Instead of rehashing the quarterly financial report, ask the CFO to share what analysts are most concerned about.
Instead of reiterating all seven strategic initiatives, focus on one. Invite an internal expert to explain what it means. Create a breakout session where employees share perspectives on the issue.
Instead of repeating any existing content, explore new ways to engage the audience. For example, don’t review safety statistics; develop stories about how employees have taken steps to improve workplace safety. Show photos, play audio, create a video.
Physical space matters and sets the tone for the conversation. Here’s a simple change that will make a big difference: rearrange the way the room is set up.
Many organizers arrange the chairs in theater style: semicircular rows of chairs facing a stage. A theater-style arrangement sends a signal to people that their role is to observe and listen—not participate.
Instead, consider setting up the room up with round tables, with employees sitting in a semi-circle around one side of each table, facing leaders. This seating arrangement signals to employees that they’re in this together—that they’ve got a chance to work together to participate. Of course, you’ve got to do more than just rearrange the room; create an activity (such as a breakout discussion) that takes advantage of the new seating arrangement. By changing the chairs, you signal to employees that this town hall meeting may be different from the ones that came before.
At nearly every traditional town hall meeting, there’s a moment of silence that comes when a senior leader utters these four scary words: “Are there any questions?” A hush falls over the room. People avoid making eye contact. Finally, some brave soul raises his hand and everyone starts breathing again.
Town hall participation shouldn’t be painful. Here are three ways to encourage employees to play a role.
Allow plenty of time. Most town halls and other leader venues are too heavily weighted toward presentations, leaving only a few minutes at the end for Q&A. You need enough time to set up the discussion, facilitate dialogue and build momentum.
Take a vote. The safest way for employees to participate is as part of a big group. Use audience response devices or text polling to ask employees their opinions on key issues. If you don’t have access to technology, you can still ask employees to participate by calling for a show of hands.
Instead of calling for questions, coach leaders to pose a question. Even in the most supportive culture, it’s risky for employees to expose potential ignorance by asking a question. But if the leader poses a question—like “What are the obstacles to achieving this objective?”—employees have the opportunity to participate from a position of strength.
You don’t have to make all these changes at once; even a simple step can make a difference in improving the experience of your town hall meetings.
Image Credit: Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash