Town hall meetings are a valuable communication tool between an organization's senior leaders and employees. Whether the goal is to share news, celebrate achievements or create dialogue, the success of the town hall meeting depends on how engaging and relevant it is to the employees who carry out the day-to-day operations. Here are some of the common mistakes to avoid when you're holding a town hall meeting—and how to fix them.
1. Not Having a Clearly Defined Purpose
While a regular town hall schedule provides consistency, the scheduling routine should not become the only reason for having a meeting. Steve Garguilo, co-founder of Action Surge, which provides strategies for putting ideas into actions, says the organizers should start with one critical question.
“What is the one clear, specific purpose for this meeting? What will be achieved? This question has to be clearly answered first," says Garguilo.
Without a clear purpose, the leaders risk having a meeting simply because “it's always been done." If there is no news to share, it doesn't mean the meeting should be canceled, but it could be an opportunity to turn the town hall meeting into a discussion about company values, an employee pitch of ideas or a conversation between employees and leadership.
“There may be opportunities to repurpose that valuable time in a way that's beneficial for everyone," Garguilo says.
One way to define the purpose of the town hall meeting is by discussing the desired outcome. Alison Davis, CEO of employee-communication firm Davis & Company, recommends asking these questions to establish the outcome:
- What do we want employees to do differently or know differently?
- What's the change we'd like to occur?
- What's the epiphany we want people to have?
“This helps you raise the expectation for the town hall, which gives you the opportunity to do something differently," Davis says.
2. Not Making the Content Relevant
Often times, senior leaders create the meeting agenda based on the topics they want to discuss. But this doesn't mean the topic will be engaging or relevant to employees, says Lynnette Holsinger, president of the HR Florida State Council, which represents 14,000 human resource professionals and 6,300 employers.
“Taking into account what the feel is among employees or what they may have questions on is a key component to having a productive and engaging—and probably highly-attended—meeting," says Holsinger.
—Rea Abrahams, culture strategist, CultureIQ
A company-wide survey and discussions within teams are typical ways to gauge employee interest in a topic. Garguilo suggests one other approach: asking the opinions of a group that may be the least sold on the idea of town halls.
“Put together what you think your purpose is, then go out and validate that," he says. “And the best way to validate is often with dissenters."
3. Not Making the Format Interactive
Even the best content won't survive poor delivery—and there are plenty of tales about meetings that are built around long slide presentations and lacking in dialogue.
“Make the town hall an interactive and immersive experience," Davis says.
One simple fix she recommends is for the slide presentation to be more visual. For example, instead of lingering on one slide for five minutes, change slides every minute. This will keep the slides moving and hold the audience's attention through visual storytelling.
Technology also makes it easy to add interactive elements. Real-time polling tools like Swift or Poll Everywhere allow participants to anonymously answer questions via a URL or text, with the results shared in real time on the screen. Besides being an information-gathering tool, the poll can become a springboard for a conversation.
Holsinger recommends a wireless microphone so the speaker can move away from the stage and walk around, interacting with the audience as well as asking their opinions and input.
“Have a note taker at the same time because sometimes special ideas may come up that could impact your organization, and not just from a process standpoint," she says. “It could be something that will also impact your bottom line in a positive manner."
The presentations don't have to be “just about top-down leadership," says Rea Abrahams, culture strategist at culture-management company CultureIQ.
“Even if there isn't something meaty to talk about, you can have guest contributions—like the tech team talking about an initiative—or you can celebrate successes, or maybe talk about some lessons learned," says Abrahams.
4. Not Following Up
Many organizations follow up a town hall meeting with a brief recap, but they don't continue the conversation after the meeting through other channels.
“Without a follow-up, you now lost your leverage as the leaders of the organization by not taking what you've learned from the town hall and following up with whatever came out of that," Holsinger says.
You also need feedback about the town hall meeting content and format.
“As the organizations change and grow, the meeting structure should change as well," Abrahams says. “Not asking for feedback about the meeting is a mistake because you have no idea how successful this meeting was."
Davis says leaders should treat a town hall meeting as a meaningful event, and feedback helps leaders to avoid a repeat of the same format, speaker and content.
“You have to constantly evolve it," she says. “It has to be a memorable experience."