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10 Steps to Creating a Super-Engaging Company Town Hall

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 — November 21st, 2023

10 Steps to Creating a Super-Engaging Company Town Hall

A company town hall is only going to be as good as the planning and prep work that goes into it, so that’s your essential starting point. Follow these 10 Steps and you’ll be well on-track to creating all-hands meetings that your people won’t want to miss.

1. Stop and Think: What Makes a Great Town Hall

Don’t start where you left off with the last one, and don’t simply copy templates from previous events. “Same old, same old” is a surefire recipe for boredom, one of the main turn-offs for employees attending town halls, whether they’re virtual or in-person.

At this stage it’s wise to take note of the memorable words of Alison Davis, CEO of New Jersey-based Davis & Co: “Town halls are events, not information dumps.” Anybody involved in organizing one should print this out and stick it on their desk.

Company Town Halls for Culture-Building and Belonging

Yes, company town halls are events—a wonderful opportunity to bring people together and share information in an environment which fosters a greater sense of community and belonging.

Just like organizing any event, whether it’s a conference, a concert, a party or a wedding its chances of success are directly linked to the level of planning and attention to detail that’s put into it at the outset.

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2. Measure and Analyze Employee Engagement

First, if your current attendance levels are poor, you’ve got to work at finding out why this is the case before you plan your next one. Otherwise, attendance isn’t going to magically increase just because you want it to. If you have technology like Poppulo, do a random survey asking for honest feedback and recommendations:

  • What’s currently working and what’s not?
  • What should be done to improve them?
  • What do they want to hear and from whom?

This will give a baseline from which to later assess future sentiment, and progress or the lack of it. If you don’t have the tech, conduct focus groups, but be sure to do them properly.

Either way, it’s critical that when you ask for feedback don’t ignore it, especially when there’s a commonality to the responses.

And don’t just listen, implement. This not only has the benefit of improving future events, it also proves to employees that they are being listened to, and that their views are valid and appreciated. It helps inclusion and employee engagement.

It also counters the frequent criticism that town halls are too much of a one-way communication process from the top down.

3. Ask Yourself What You Want Your Town Hall to Achieve

Be honest, be blunt.

  • Why are you really holding a company town hall?
  • What’s the purpose?
  • What’s the objective, the goal that needs to be achieved?

Is the event being held simply because it always had been held every month or every quarter?

Unless it has a clear purpose with definable goals and objectives, it’s time to reassess and question whether continuing is the correct course to follow.

One of the smartest, wisest and most succinct bits of advice relating to town halls we’ve ever heard was: “If you don’t have anything of substance to discuss, don’t have a meeting.”

Company Town Halls Cost Time and Money—Don’t Waste Resources

Town halls can be expensive and time-consuming to hold, and are counter-productive if they don’t serve a useful purpose and employees don’t value what they offer.

All too often, wherever in the world company town halls are held, in whatever language, the criticisms are the same, in diverse languages: heard it all before, boring, leaders talking down, content not relevant to me, questions rigged, not interactive, no opportunity to ask real questions.

Each of these reactions, and more you will come across, should be viewed as an opportunity instead of a criticism. Write each one on a list. Think about how your own town hall would rate against each one, and start work on developing a strategy to address them in your company.

Employees need to feel glad they attended, that they didn’t miss it. With so many other ways of instantly connecting with all employees, it’s crucial that town halls hold a special appeal for them. On the flipside, having no town hall is infinitely preferable to one that’s stale and boring.

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4. Set a Tight Business Agenda

Tip: Select a Strong Moderator, Encourage Robust Questions, and Honest Answers

Nobody wants to sit in a long meeting listening to lots of speakers, so keep it tight, with speakers covering no more than three topics on a strict time limit, enforced by the moderator.

Don’t have the agenda all management-speak: get employees to feed into the agenda and consider having a section highlighting team achievements or works in progress. The days of town halls being one-way, top-down conversations are long dead—it must be at least two-way or no way.

Employees must feel that not only do they have a voice, but that management actively wants to hear it, irrespective of whether or not it’s comfortable for them to hear some unpalatable issues.

On that point, as one of the main goals of a town hall is to foster engagement, allow adequate time for a Q & A where employees should feel comfortable to ask difficult questions and get honest answers.

If you can achieve this, your town hall will be an event people will not want to miss, but if there isn’t an honesty and transparency about the process, then you and your senior leadership will have a lot more to worry about than town halls.

5. Carefully Choose Your Town Hall Speakers

Hint: Don’t Always Go for the Most Obvious

These days, organizations have so many options to communicate with employees—and it’s this fact that makes town halls so special. Nothing comes close to engaging people than hearing an inspiring talk from their CEO.

It’s not always possible, but whenever it is, the CEO should be one of the speakers, not least because they should be there to enthusiastically lead and embrace the Q&A session.

Company Town Halls: An Opportunity for the CEO to Show Real Leadership

But what if the CEO isn’t a very good orator? Don’t worry. Great communicators don’t necessarily make great leaders, but brilliant leaders are always superb communicators.

That doesn’t mean they have to be the best orators in the world. They don’t have to be.

Because great communication isn’t all about imparting information—it’s about connecting and inspiring. That’s the most important bit, and it’s something that’s too often forgotten.

So, when your CEO speaks at the town hall, it’s all about making that connection, how she or he tells the story in an interesting way to get the key messages across, showing people they’ve been listened to, and not drowning them in data in a death-by-Powerpoint presentation.

It’s even more crucial that the CEO is the person center stage if tough or challenging news is being delivered. In these circumstances it’s often forgotten by senior leaders that how the information is communicated is as important as what is being communicated.

Finally, aside from the CEO, ensure the speaker panel isn’t all management. And if they must be mainly management, make sure they don’t appear like best friends sitting at the top table, chummily apart from the people who are the most important players at the event, the employees—it’s an alienating turn-off.

Also, find a way to consistently have the voices of employees represented, telling what’s important to them and the achievements of their team (or the challenges they face, and perhaps how other departments could help them, for example) and not just have them feel their involvement is restricted to the Q&A.

Also, always look out for influencers in your company who might make excellent speakers, but who wouldn’t be obvious choices for a town hall.

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6. Get the Town Hall Setting Right—and Advance-Check Speaker Presentations for Clarity

Do an advance check to make sure everything is in order, that the microphones and A/V system and connections for remote audiences are working, and that there are enough chairs for everybody attending in-person if the meeting is going to last more than 30 minutes.

Wherever possible, try to get advance sight of presentations, not only so they can be culled of irrelevant and confusing detail, but also that they’re not so dense that the slides can’t even be seen by people at the back of the room.

Meet the speakers in advance and always remind them and stress that the meeting is for the attendees, not them.

It’s all about what the attendees need to know, what they want to know and what they’d like to know. Everything else is irrelevant.

If the subject matter of any speaker doesn’t tick at least two of those three boxes, either persuade them to change tack or to think again about whether they should still present. Two of the most common complaints about town halls is that the content is either not relevant or boring. There is no excuse for presenting content that is irrelevant to the audience, it is simply unforgivable. And if it’s not relevant, it’s very likely going to be boring.

On the other hand, some information that needs to be relayed might be important but not something exciting to present to people—and it might even verge on boring. But that’s still not an excuse to bore people. One way of overcoming this is to keep the talk as brief as possible and alert people at the outset by saying something like: “I need to highlight a couple of points which won’t set the world on fire, but which are extremely important because…”

7. Never Exclude Remote Workers From Your Town Hall Planning

One of the downsides of remote working is that people can feel a sense of disconnection from HQ, and they sometimes can feel like the forgotten people in an company, inadvertently ignored.

A surefire way of reinforcing that impression is not involving them fully in town halls, and that means going far beyond ensuring they can attend remotely. The ability to attend is table-stakes. Remote workers should feel they are as involved as those in the room. Speakers should strip away references to the location where the physical town hall is being held, for example mentioning the nice sunny weather when colleagues in other countries might be knee-deep in snow!

So, it’s imperative that remote workers are given priority status in your planning—and do your checks in advance to ensure the technology is working prior to the event kick-off.

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8. Celebrate Success in the Company: Give Great Colleagues a Shout-Out and a Thank You

It’s a universal truth: people love to have their work acknowledged, no matter where they work, or at what level of an company.

Town halls are perfect for showcasing great work, or kind, helpful gestures in companies which in turn foster cultures of infectious encouragement for others to create great work. Short, snappy videos are a great way to illustrate outstanding work, cooperation and collaboration or achievements, and if they can be presented with some humor, all the better. And the shout-out doesn’t always have to come from management. Indeed, hearing how your colleagues appreciate something you did for them that left an impact, can be incredibly powerful. This recognition is powerful when delivered in-person, but video works great too.

9. The Make-or-Break Town Hall Q&A

A lively Q&A, with straight-up questions and open, honest answers can invigorate any meeting and engender real engagement, particularly in a town hall setting. But equally, a stilted, less-than-open session where questions are of the fluffy soft variety, and appear planted to suit management, will do more harm than good and undermine future events.

A company’s attitude to a Q & A with its employees embodies everything about the true culture of the company. If there’s a culture of openness and transparency, it will be apparent in the willingness of management to encourage and answer awkward questions. That makes for a town hall employees will want to attend. But the opposite is equally true.

One of the many pluses of a company with a culture of openness and transparency is that employees understand and accept when management simply cannot divulge certain information that might be asked of them.

They know that they are not being brushed off because management has a track record of being open and honest with them.

That said, even in the most open and transparent of companies, it’s sometimes helpful to have questions prepped in advance for people to ask, in the event that there’s a slow take-up when the session starts.

Just make sure that they’re not all of the soft and cuddly variety, for the sake of credibility.

If you think you can’t make a prepped or "planted" question appear authentic, then avoid it. Instead consider flipping the onus on having the CEO ask the question. For example, if one of the topics under discussion had been recent negative publicity on social media, the CEO might ask someone in the relevant department how they felt about this, how it impacted on them personally and any suggestions they might have to prevent a recurrence, or to respond differently.

This has the effect of not only encouraging feedback and dialogue, it also shows the CEO is in touch with issues impacting the company and the people at the frontline who must deal with these types of situations. It shows a leader who cares about their people.

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10. Don’t Forget Previous Town Hall Promises

When it comes to the capacity of human beings to remember unfulfilled promises, the supposedly extraordinary memory of elephants doesn’t even begin to compare!

If a CEO says their company is going to do something but doesn’t, people don’t forget that and every broken promise, no matter how small, is another blow to the leader’s credibility. So, it’s crucial that somebody keeps a record of promises, pledges and statements of intent made by management at town halls, and that they are not just blithely forgotten as soon as the meeting is over.

Becauses if they are, if they are consigned to yesterday’s comments bin, then this will feed into any perceptions that town halls are just gabfests, a meaningless forum for management to make empty promises to keep the masses quiet.

It’s far more powerful if a CEO stands up at a town hall and says, “six months ago I stood here and said we were going to do X, and unfortunately we didn’t, because… and these are the measures we’re now going to take to address the issue.”

That’s a CEO worth listening to, at a town hall you wouldn’t want to miss.

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