If your organization holds employee town hall meetings, chances are you're already planning your first session of the year. That's why it's a great time to resolve to make next year's town halls more energetic and engaging.

After all, town halls are a valuable way for employees to hear from leaders, which builds trust and confidence. And town halls share content employees can't receive anywhere else, which provides valuable learning. Plus, town halls bring people together from various locations and functions, so they create a sense of community.

It's clear that town halls have the potential to be a dynamic, interactive form of communication. However, too many become data dumps, with senior leaders sharing slide after slide of facts, figures and statistics that employees will forget five minutes after the session is over.

Town halls are such an important part of an effective internal communication program that it's critical to do them right. Here are 18 ways to improve your next town hall:

  1. Set tangible, specific objectives. Having a clear focus will help you design the town hall to be more purposeful. For example, choose objective like these: "create learning about an issue that's vital to the organization" or "motivate employees to take action."
  2. Design every research tool--from post-event surveys to an annual communication audit--to measure how well employees think you've achieved your objectives.
  3. Build a story arc. A "story arc" is a term that fiction writers, Broadway playwrights and Hollywood screenwriters use to describe the ups and downs of a narrative. For a town hall, a story arc describes the emotional lows (discussing a serious issue) and highs (celebrating success) that create energy.
  4. Create a "run of show" document that choreographs what will occur and when. Town halls are too important to manage loosely--the best sessions run with military precision. The most important element: every segment starts and ends on time.
  5. Eliminate every piece of information that's not essential to tell your story. Town halls don't happen very often, so it's tempting to want to talk about everything that has happened since the last one. But, there's a limit to how much information people can process before they suffer from overload.
  6. Limit your agenda to no more than three key topics (yes, only three) and keep the level of detail to a minimum. Fewer, more focused topics will help keep employees interested.
  7. Include financial results only if you bring them to life for employees. Dense charts don't create understanding. Relate numbers to what the organization needs to work on next.
  8. Go deep instead of covering a wide range of topics. For example, instead of reiterating all seven strategic initiatives, focus on one strategy. Invite an internal expert to explain what it means. Create a breakout session where employees share their perspectives on the issue.
  9. Bring a fresh and unexpected element to every topic. For example, don't review safety statistics; develop stories about how employees have taken steps to improve workplace safety.
  10. Show video only if it's very short and action-packed. Ever look around the room when a long, contemplative video is being played? Employees' eyes literally look glazed over. Video should be no more than two minutes long--and every second needs to be as fast-moving as a Michael Bay movie.
  11. If using PowerPoint, create a lot of slides--with one concept per slide. I'm not sure why the rule for presentations became  "less is better."  With fewer slides, presenters tend to cram more information in each slide and employees quickly get bored of watching the same slide for minute after minute. By creating lots of slides with one idea per slide, you give employees  something new to look at and keep your deck moving forward, both of which will make for a more engaging presentation.
  12. Change the way the room is arranged. Most of the time, seats are set up theater-style, with chairs in straight rows. The problem is that arrangement sends a signal to people that their role is to observe and listen. We think of concerts, plays, movies, sporting events--all experiences where people aren't participants, but audience members. If possible, set up round tables, with employees sitting in a semi-circle around one side of each table, facing the leaders.
  13. Put tables (and chairs) close together. As every stand-up comedian knows, wide-open spaces make people stiff. So bring employees in as close to speakers as possible. A little crowding is a good thing.
  14. To encourage employees to participate, 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 share their viewpoint. The simplest approach? Call for a show of hands.
  15. Instead of calling for questions, coach leaders to pose a question. Even in the most open, 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.
  16. Allow plenty of time for participation. Most town halls and other leader venues are too heavily weighted toward presentations, leaving only a few minutes at the end for Q&A. Once employees start to watch the clock ("only 10 more minutes"), they're discouraged from participating. You need enough time to set up the discussion, facilitate dialogue and build momentum. 
  17. Make sure every person has an equal experience. Even if some employees attend in person and others join via web meeting or teleconference, make sure everyone has a chance to participate. Assign a facilitator to manage each remote location--and a partner facilitator who sits in the main location (where the leader is.) The remote facilitator is responsible for collecting employees' questions and comments--and feeding them to his or her partner facilitator via chat, text or email.
  18. Practice, practice, practice. Especially if you're trying new techniques, make sure you test everything: seating, tech, transitions, confetti. And, yes, your leaders are busy, but they need to do a quick dry run to make sure they're comfortable before the show starts.

Every improvement will make your next town hall a more meaningful, memorable experience.