Yesterday, a client brought tears to my eyes when she said I had inspired her to give her leader's town hall an extreme makeover.

No more boring PowerPoint slides! Out with old content employees don't care about! Kick the Q&A session (and the crickets you hear when employees are reluctant to ask questions) to the curb!

I felt that my work had meaning . . . someone was listening to me!

I have to admit: Sometimes I feel like my town hall advice is falling on deaf ears. I've been to so many town halls that seem stuck in a different decade. The content is lackluster. This quarter's session seems the same as the last three meetings. Employees are quietly polite (instead of energetically enthusiastic).

If you admit that your town halls haven't been a thrilling success, then it's time for a change. After all, you know the importance of town halls: They're 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.

In fact, town halls can make such a significant impact that it's critical to do them right. So there's no reason to accept mediocrity. And I'm here to help; it's my annual tradition to share ideas that will help you improve your next town hall.

Here are 20 tangible tips: 

  1. Repeat after me: A town hall is not a collection of information; it's an experience. Merriam-Webster defines "experience" as "the process of doing and seeing things and of having things happen to you." (Hint: Sitting and watching leaders narrate 55 PowerPoint slides is not an experience; it's an ordeal.) A town hall, in other words, is an event. It's a show. What are the elements that makes a show a show? From Broadway productions to TV talk shows to school plays, shows are choreographed, memorable, energy-producing and participative. Your town hall needs to be all of those things.
  2. Set 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."
  3. Design every research tool--from post-event surveys to an annual communication audit--to measure how well employees think you've achieved your objectives 
  4. 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.
  5. Create a "run of show" document that choreographs when and how events will occur. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Bring a fresh and unexpected element to every topic. Don't review safety statistics; develop stories about how employees have taken steps to improve workplace safety.
  11. 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 glaze over. Video should be no more than two minutes long--and every second needs to be as fast-moving as a Michael Bay movie.
  12. If using PowerPoint, create a lot of slides--with one concept per slide. (Why? Here's a scientific explanation.)
  13. Rearrange the room. 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 we're not 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. Take a vote to encourage employees to take part. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. 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.
  20. Experiment. A town hall isn't a stone tablet; it's not fixed. So you can try something new this time and, if it doesn't work, use a different technique for the next town hall. I have a client who introduces an element for every session. Not every concept is a big success, but this experimentation keeps town halls fresh and a bit unexpected. So employees pay attention. And isn't that the idea?
Published on: Jan 29, 2020
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