CommonSense Blog

Do Town Halls Encourage Interaction and Learning or Foster Ambivalence?

By Abigail Rethore | Apr 18, 2013

Practical Considerations to Improve Your Town Hall Gatherings

What comes to mind when you visualize a town hall-style meeting in its most traditional sense? Many organizations hope to tap into this New England tradition of democracy, picturing their employees engaged in a rousing and lively dialogue with senior management. Instead, the end result is often a quiet, disengaged audience with heads bent over smartphones as leadership drones on about the company’s financial and operating performance. Even worse, leaders are often convinced the session went well because they were in the midst of the workforce and even saw people smiling and nodding during the talk.

Internal surveys often tell a different story – employees have become increasingly “numb” to town halls. While numerous reasons are cited, the real cause is that town halls are now choreographed events with little “authentic” dialogue and opportunity to better grasp the thinking of leadership while comprehending the future state of the business.

WCG recently conducted research on the relevance (or lack thereof) of town hall meetings as an effective leadership communications effort. This brief summarizes the key findings from that research.

The term “town hall” may be used in the context of large employee meetings with leadership, but few such meetings actually evoke the desired back-andforth interaction typical of true town halls. To make sure that these types of meetings are truly conversational and barrier-breaking in nature, it’s important to remember that there is no one-sizefits-all approach.

There are many ways to help communicators create a constructive dialogue between audiences and presenters, thus ensuring that your next town hall is a successful part of your larger employee experience or engagement strategy. The 18 considerations below reflect some of the next practices being undertaken by organizations large and small to optimize the original purpose of the town hall – to engender dialogue, discussion, and debate all in the name of learning and alignment:

1. Promote the Event Ahead of Time.
Using internal social media, intranet and all other internal communications tools, alert employees about the Town Hall in the days leading up to it. Make them aware that they can participate either in person or remotely through live web streaming. Consider posting podcasts of select leaders talking about the event and the topics they will be addressing. Let them know they will be able to live blog about the event on internal social media (see tip #11, below).

2. Minimize the use of PowerPoint.
Corporate America may love PowerPoint, but keep the presentation lean, with supporting visuals and brief bullet points at a minimum. This forces leaders to make eye contact with the audience and talk more informally.

3. Don’t be afraid to ad lib.
It’s okay to speak off the cuff. Any hope of building trust through spontaneity and candor is lost when the presenter sounds overrehearsed. Coach senior leaders to talk from brief bullet points instead of fully scripted remarks.

4. Include Non-Leadership People Among Presenters.
Have a project manager present the latest product offering or give a business update alongside the leader sponsoring it. This gives rank-and-file employees exposure and helps to keep the meeting dynamic and relatable.

5. Include an Interview Segment.
If you’re discussing a dry topic, keep your audience from tuning out by using a talk-show-style interview format, with a member of the communications team “interviewing” the leader.

6. Try a Panel Discussion.
Ask a quiet audience point-blank to offer up questions to the CEO and you’ll likely be greeted with silence and averted eyes. Instead, try a panel discussion with the leadership team and a mix of “regular” employees. Have conversation fodder on hand if no questions are posed initially by soliciting them ahead of time. To encourage day-of questions, have index cards in each seat at the meeting for employees to submit anonymously.

7. Prep the Audience.
Alternatively, before the meeting, meet with the live audience and talk with them. Employees sitting before the company’s senior management are nervous about asking questions, afraid of sounding uninformed or invoking the wrath of their bosses by asking “the wrong question.” Help ease their concerns. Find out what’s on their minds and, when good questions are posed, encourage them to ask them, exactly the way they framed them with you.

8. Senior Leaders Should Model Positive Attitude.
Positive morale about the event starts with top leadership. Require that senior leaders go to the town hall (even if they’re just sitting in the audience). Strongly advise them against grumbling about the meeting “taking up valuable time.”

9. Relax, Be Funny, Have Fun.
The more informal nature of a town hall means that leaders have a chance to let their hair down and allow employees to see a more relaxed side of their personality. If leaders have a hidden talent or a proclivity for cracking jokes, this is the time to bring those out.

10. Bring In an Outsider.
Keep the audience guessing by teasing a surprise guest speaker beforehand. A celebrity always gets people talking, but a well respected, retired company leader, community figure or industry thought leader is also a memorable and effective option.

11. Take Advantage of Social Media.
Incorporate audience feedback in real time by assigning the meeting a unique hashtag before the meeting. Publicize the hashtag and encourage both on-site and remote participants to post their thoughts throughout the event on internal social media like Yammer or Jive. Have a live feed of the trending hashtag on display during the meeting, so employees can see the conversation as it takes place, which further promotes engagement with peers and leaders present.

12. Don’t Forget the Remote Employees.
Stream the event live on the company portal. Ensure that hourly workers and those at outside locations can participate, either through meetings on the plant floor or video conferences. To that end, make sure to film all updates, or have someone on point to
stream live updates via your company’s blog, intranet or internal social media. Also, give the employees watching online an easy way to post questions. Screen them, and then use the best ones.

13. Alternate Between Heavy and Light News.
Take a page out of the newscaster’s book: keep your audience’s attention by alternating between meatier topics such as performance updates and lighter fare such as employee recognition pieces.

14. Inform Employees About Meeting Content.
Give employees a taste of what they can look forward to at the meeting by sharing the town hall’s agenda ahead of time. Well-informed employees are more likely to be engaged employees.

15. Break Bread.
After the meeting, host a meal with seating and room layout that is conducive to mingling. Invite senior leaders to serve the food and then sit at tables with employees, providing those who may not be comfortable speaking up during a Q&A session to pose questions to leadership one-on-one. Consider including a raffle or contest around key aspects of the business or brand(s) to build anticipation and encourage participation and attendance. Link prizes to trivia questions pertaining to updates delivered during the town hall.

16. Recap the Meeting.
Send out a brief synopsis of the topics covered and questions asked, with corresponding answers and how management intends to act on those questions.

17. Follow Up to Learn What Was Heard.
Ask participants to complete a brief (five questions at most), anonymous survey, printed or electronic, immediately after the meeting. Emphasize that their feedback will directly drive the next town hall agenda and format.

18. Extend the Event From a Single Day Into an Experience.
Keep the event alive in people’s daily lives by capturing highlights on video, edited in quick bites, for later viewing on the intranet. Have the CEO blog about the experience from his perspective. Build a *Content Capsule™ on the intranet to capture key messages, linked back to over-riding themes to put the meeting in a larger context. Components might be select video snippets, related blog posts and background materials on topics covered, podcasts, etc. Use the capsule’s tracking analytics feature to do a deep dive into the pieces that your audience especially engage with, using these findings to inform planning for your next town hall.

Not all of these tactics will work for every organization, but a little variety can grab your employees’ attention, incite enthusiasm for mundane topics and get people to look forward to town halls. What works for your company?

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*Content Capsule™ is a proprietary internal platform developed by WCG that captures video, audio, graphic, data, and other content to better dimensionalize a story for employees.

WCG is an integrated digital/social marketing and communications counseling firm offering communications, marketing, business and technology solutions focused on product supremacy, brand reputation, and organizational excellence to organizations in diverse industries worldwide. WCG is a member of the W2O Group, a network of independent, complementary marketing and communications firms.