Here's the dirty little secret about employee town hall meetings: Most are mind-numbingly boring. In fact, they're so dull that they follow a predictable pattern. Leaders present dozens of slides full of data, then preside over a lackluster question-and-answer period. Finally, after a painful hour or so, the town hall is (mercifully) over.

I've written a lot about this topic--for example, how employees really feel about these forums and the biggest mistake most organizations when planning events--but communicators still struggle with improving town halls. They tell me they have difficulty convincing their leaders to change. Despite the fact that nobody (including leaders) loves town halls, everyone seems invested in the status quo.

That's why I was so happy to discover this clever technique in Chip and Dan Heath's new book, The Power of Moments. The book is focused on how to create defining moments, "a short experience that is both memorable and meaningful."

One key defining moment is an insight--when you realize something that affects the way you think and what you do.

And an especially powerful type of insight is what the Heaths call "tripping over the "When you have a sudden realization, one that you didn't see coming, and one that you know viscerally is right, you've tripped over the truth," write the Heath brothers. "It's a defining moment that in an instant can change the way you see the world."

The Heaths tell the story of Michael Palmer, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Virginia and also associate director of the university's Teaching Resource Center. "In 2009, he started a weeklong program called the Course Design Institute (CDI) to help professors design the course they'd be teaching. On Monday morning, professors bring their draft syllabi, and by Friday afternoon, they've overhauled them and created an improved game plan for their courses."

For the full account of how Palmer has helped professors rethink their syllabi read The Power of Moments. But let's focus on how to use Palmer's approach, called "backward-integrated design," to persuade leaders to revamp employee town halls meetings.

Backward-integrated design works like this:

  • First, identify your goals.
  • Next, figure out how to assess how stakeholders will achieve those goals.
  • Then, design activities that prepares stakeholders to excel at those assessments.

The key to taking someone through this process lies in the goal-setting process. Palmer starts with an activity called the "dream exercise." For professors, he gives this instruction: "Imagine you have a group of dream students. They are engaged, they are perfectly behaved, and have perfect memories. Fill in this sentence: 3 - 5 years from now, my employees still know (blank). Or they are still able to do (blank). Or they still find value in (blank)."

The a-ha moment occurs when the professors in the course are asked to analyze their draft syllabi, compared to the outcomes they dream about. In most cases, what they realize is that their course was designed simply to cover a bunch of content, not achieve a meaningful goal.

Okay, let's apply this same technique to town halls:

  • Start by asking a leader to articulate what his/her "dream" would be for the next town hall. What will employees understand a month or so later? How will employees be motivated and moved? What actions will employees be prepared to take? (In doing so, try one of the questions I often ask: If we can only accomplish one big outcome for the town hall, what will it be?)
  • Next, pull out the agenda or slides from the most recent town hall meeting. Discuss: How well does our past approach to town halls achieve the objectives you have for what employees will know, believe and do? In almost every case, this will be a "trip over the truth" moment, as Chip and Dan Heath write. Your leader will realize that town halls are not actually achieving a critical objective.
  • Finally, be prepared to offer ideas for how to take town halls to a whole other level. For example, if one objective is to motivate employees, offer ways to create an inspiring experience. Or if a leader wants to make sure employees really know about a topic, design the town hall to create a learning experience.

Town halls don't have to be terrible--in fact, they can be defining moments.