Internal communication strategy

Running Town Hall Meetings as a Shared and Engaging Experience

Ineffective town halls meeting are a massive missed opportunity for corporations and their senior leaders

Nima Torabi
Jul 15, 2020 · 9 min read

Employees value the opportunity to connect with senior leaders and that’s why town hall meetings can be very important. Town halls give leaders a forum to share results, reviewing critical issues, celebrate achievements, and discussing what employees can do to help the organization succeed.

A town hall meeting is a goal-oriented, mingling event, not a series of presentations — it’s about joint participation

The intention of town halls is to create an open space for employees to engage in conversations and when the meeting becomes a repetitive one-way presentation, then the employees will start to dread town hall meetings rather than look forward to them.

The potentials of town hall meetings

There are many numbers of advantages to running town hall meetings and that is why they are so popular:

  • Firsthand sharing and updating of important information: whether physically present, remote, or even watching a recording of the session, a town hall meetings are important because it can get rid of misunderstandings and foster internal alignment, without the need for back door access to information or second-hand conversations. Moreover, town halls are an opportunity for employees to hear of things they wouldn’t hear anywhere else. These points, can all lead to building trust within the organization
  • Visibility in leadership: the larger an organization, the more invisible the senior leaders can appear to be. A message delivered in-person by the CEO or any other senior individuals — depending on the topic of discussion — will be more impactful than a company-wide email
  • Culture and value reinforcement: regular company-wide town hall meetings can be an educational opportunity to reinforce the values, goals, and corporate culture that every employee should know about. This will in effect help build a sense of community among colleagues
  • Promotion of collaborative teamwork: getting everyone in the same room, or on an online webinar platform, encourages people to mingle and exchange ideas and feel connected to the whole. Hearing the voice of colleagues from a different part of the organization, will familiarize colleagues and encourage members to reach out to one another to solve shared problems
  • Increased engagement: as participants feel part of the organization’s decision-making process
  • Unfiltered, honest, and raw feedback: senior leaders have the opportunity to hear from colleagues which is different from how information usually reaches higher echelons — filtered, biased, and probably inaccurate in the message
  • Positive vibes: these meetings can be an opportunity to have fun, and learn from one another while ‘playing’, further promoting teamwork and helping employee retention

The risk with town hall meetings

Although there are many advantages to town hall meetings, there are also a few disadvantages:

  • Complexity: town halls can be complex to organize, especially when teams are spread across multiple geographies and time zones
  • Information can be filtered: the information and dialogues aren’t always unfiltered and constructive feedback. Participants will often say what they think others would want to hear, or sensor conversations for organizational political reasons
  • Group psychology issues: for example, not everyone feels comfortable speaking up in front of people

Setting up successful town hall meetings

There are six steps to running a fruitful, engaging, and shared town hall meeting experience

There are six steps to running a fruitful, engaging, and shared town hall meeting experience:

Step 1: set focused objectives

If town halls have become so routine that they run on autopilot, and are scheduled months in advance, and the content is discussed a week before the session with bullet point topics to cover, then this will lead to an unfruitful meeting.

For town hall meetings to be truly effective, ask the following:

  • What are the outcomes we are trying to achieve with the meeting?
  • What do we want the participants/employees to know, believe, and do as a result of the meeting?

Some sample answers could be:

  • Increase confidence in the company and the trust in its leaders
  • Learn about an issue that’s vital to the organization
  • Motivate employees
  • Prepare employees to take action
  • Celebrates people and accomplishments such as with new hires, anniversaries, interesting stories, etc.
  • Drive alignment around the corporate vision, mission, values, strategies, and priorities
  • Provides a forum to ask and answer questions with pre-screened questions, impromptu Q&As, and etc.

This way, we are creating focused objectives that build a strong foundation for planning a town hall meeting that’s based on measurable outcomes with the goal of making the session worth the effort.

Step 2: create focus and story flow

A common mistake made in planning town halls sessions is including too many topics. Organizers tend to put town halls together by collecting topics from key stakeholders that may include 10 or 12 topics pressured into 30–40 minutes of meeting time. Therefore, such town halls tend to look like a laundry list of unstructured and scattered content.

When building the content, ask yourself:

  • How can you put the content together in a way that raises employees’ energy and leaves them feeling more motivated than when they came into the session?

Thereby, structure the session in a manner that aims to engage members’ emotions. Think of topics and stories that would build energy and lift people up and those that would stretch them to contemplate deeply. Just like a TV talk show, aim to start with a strong opening that energizes participants early on and keeps them engaged throughout the session and not just at the end.

Moreover, instead of giving every topic equal weight and time, provide deep-dive sessions on the issues that matter the most. Brings the issue to life by narrating a compelling story. Take your audience into account when building the content — figure out what moves them, pitch for a sample, gather feedback, pivot, re-pitch, and optimize until you have stories that will stick in the mind, engage, and motivate action.

A sample meeting schedule or agenda could like this:

  • Welcome and introductions (5 mins.)
  • Thank you for the great year and recognition of achievements (5 mins.)
  • Recap priorities for the coming year (5 mins.)
  • Focus on brand image positioning priority: what are the customer trends, why the brand image is a differentiator, how improvements will be achieved, etc. (10–15 mins.) Notice how only one topic was discussed, due to its severity and importance to the company.
  • Employee perspectives on the marketing efforts and brand image, brainstorm session, Q&A, and discussions (20–25 minutes)
  • Next steps, recap, notes, conclusions, and wrap up (5–10 mins.)

Try to craft a clear, time-sensitive agenda and share it with the participants at least 48 hours ahead of time.

Step 3 — refresh (F5) the content

Many town halls share information that employees already know — basically boring old news. Content can be as stale as last week’s bread. Build a committee or a cross-functional team around the content to hash out new ideas for the content and how to package and pitch them. For example:

  • Instead of regurgitating the quarterly financial report, ask the finance office to share external analysts concerns about the annual financial statements
  • Rather than reiterating all strategic areas of focus, present one, and in more detail. Perhaps, invite an internal expert to explain what it means, and if possible, create a breakout session where employees share perspectives on the issue
  • Explore new ways to engage the audience such as how employees have taken steps to improve workplace safety using photos, audio, video, or even social media
  • Depending on the importance of the topic, change the speakers and presenters. One topic may require the CEO, another the CFO, and one the CMO. Flex the setup depending on the topic

Step 4 — take care of the facilities

Physical space matters and sets the tone for the session For example, when a room is arranged in a theater-style, people will feel that their role is to observe and listen, rather than participate.

Instead, setting up the room with round tables and employees facing the leaders or presenters signals to employees that they’re in this together, have a chance to work together to participate.

Moreover, if the context allows, a joint activity such as a breakout discussion can further help create the atmosphere for interaction and engagement. Maybe consider a theme for the activities and how they foster the improvement in achieving the intended objectives.

The case of virtual town halls

  • Get rid of all technical difficulties before the session. Have the IT department take care of this, or offer a help desk, or a point of contact to hold responsibility for technical assistance on the platform. Choose the external technology and service provider with a right framework of due diligence and backtest their capabilities
  • Train participants on the workarounds of working with the software. This could come in the form of a quick, screen-sharing tutorial 30-minutes ahead of time, or even recorded videos, or etc.
  • Depending on the topic, consider broadcasting on social media. This could lead to interesting content not just for the employees, but also the general public, customers, or any other relative external stakeholders
  • Have a team monitor the discussion boards to address potential concerns participants are raising, leading to high engagement levels
  • Be flexible. Record the session so that people who were unable to join, have the chance to see it later

Step 5: make participation frictionless

There’s almost, always, a moment of silence when a senior leader utters these four scary words: “Are there any questions?” A hush tends to fill the room and people avoid making eye contact before some brave superhero raises his hand and everyone starts breathing again. Participation shouldn’t be painful and the people who are arranging the session need to remove such frictions. For example:

  • Allow plenty of time for discussion: forget long presentations, get to the points in the shortest time possible in a way that the story flow is not jeopardized, and leave enough time to set up the discussion, facilitate dialogue and build conversation momentum
  • Use a voting system: the safest way for employees to participate in a dialogue is by being part of a bigger group. This can be done by using technological tools, or by just a simple show of hands
  • Coach employees on the right way to pose a question or ask middle managers to pose initial questions: employees generally find it risky to expose themselves to negative internal emotions by asking a question. But if the leader poses a question employees have the opportunity to participate in a position of strength
  • Assign specific people to take and gather notes and try to address concerns during the meeting: you don’t have to address everything at once. Gather these opinions and can review them later and maybe even hold a review session

Step 6: gather participant feedback

Community meetings serve as a platform for the members to come and work together. Therefore, it’s important for leaders to take comments seriously and demonstrate this seriousness through follow up actions, which will further encourage more people to participate in future meetings. Aim to be transparent and publish the meeting minutes and notes (preferably online or on the internal portal), as well as describing what actions were taken in response.

Town halls meetings are intended for everyone in the organisation, in which management reports on matters, and employees are given ample opportunity to respond, ask questions and enter into discussions with managers. While ineffective town halls meeting are a massive missed opportunity for corporations and their senior leaders, if run properly they can result in increased employee engagement and improved bottom lines.

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