Town halls date back to New England colonies in the 1620s, where there was likely much discussion and even brash outbursts. Newspapers, and later on, radio and television, diminished the need for these open forums, but in the 1900s, they found new life in politics and corporate America. Let’s time travel a few decades back…
1980s: Town hall or lecture?
Back in 1980s corporate America, a town hall looked something like this: Employees crowded into a meeting room where the CEO or another leader presented canned talking points, then opened the floor for questions. Because management knew employees were reluctant to engage, they planted softball questions within the audience. Leadership thought the meeting was a great success, but employees weren’t sure it was worth the hour’s respite from work.
As a young communications professional at the time, I attended similar town hall meetings for my employer, took notes, and published a newsletter recapping the event. In five years, nothing changed, whether it was the CEO’s opening statements, the employees designated to ask softball questions fed to them by management, or where we went to lunch after the meetings!
If it doesn’t sound like it was much fun or even worth the time, it wasn’t. What was originally supposed to be an open forum to share opinions, voice concerns and engage in lively dialog had turned into something decidedly different, with information flowing from executives to employees, but not the other way around.
Today: You might get lunch but are you being engaged?
Since then, we’ve seen some positive changes with town halls. They’re less formal than the meetings of the past — some leaders will dress casually to put employees at ease — and many include a meal during or after the event. That’s where the real conversations happen. But despite these steps in the right direction, many companies are still relying on the old-fashioned town hall format we used in the ‘80s, which as we know, does little to incite employee engagement.
So what can you do if your town halls are stuck in the past? Here are 10 tips to help create a better experience for all involved:
- If the CEO isn’t the main speaker, invite him or her to pop in at some point to say hello.
- Enlist managers to encourage employee attendance (if it’s not mandatory).
- Play music as employees enter. Get creative and use a song that reflects your culture or the topic of the meeting.
- Limit topics to three at most and keep talking points brief.
- Serve snacks or a meal. This not only attracts people, but helps them relax.
- Present awards. These can be silly or serious.
- If possible, conduct a series of smaller meetings. It’s harder to hide in a small group.
- Help your speaker be a better speaker (reading off note cards is so last millennium, but good preparation never goes out of style).
- Allow ample time for questions, but consider asking the audience questions first to get them warmed up and more engaged.
- If you’re hosting the event online, use chat features and polling to keep listeners engaged, and make sure you test the technology beforehand.
Town hall meetings are important; they give leaders a forum for sharing results, reviewing critical issues and discussing what employees can do to help the company succeed. The intention is to create a forum for employees to voice their concerns, ask questions and engage in lively dialog, none of which will happen if you’re using it as an outlet for one-way communication.
If you need help persuading leadership that change is needed, there are numerous articles online that offer additional thoughts and ideas about conducting successful town halls, along with case studies. I recently attended an online seminar in which the presenter explained that, prior to a two-day conference with employees, her organization’s leaders dressed as clowns and marched in a New Orleans parade to loosen everyone up. That’s definitely one way to break the ice and create the more open, two-sided dialog you hope to foster!