Rethink leadership communication strategies at town halls

In my previous life as a corporate employee, I sat through my share of mind-numbing employee town halls. They always followed the same formula: one presenter after another, reading from slides crammed with text and answering prearranged questions. So when clients ask how to infuse energy into their all-hands meetings, I’m happy to help.

My first piece of advice is to change your mindset. A town hall should not be a data dump. Instead, it should be a special event—in fact, a town hall should be a show. Great shows create energy and encourage participation. Although it takes planning and coordination to develop a town hall show, it’s not as difficult as you may think. With some creativity—and courage—you can make a big impact.

Here are five tips, to make your next town hall an experience to remember. 

1. Create a memorable experience

There’s no law that says all six members of the leadership team have to speak at every town hall. Mix up the format. Try a panel discussion or fireside chat to have a more in-depth conversation about a key part of the organization. Use a TV talk show technique and have your CEO be the host. Arrange the seating so there’s no barrier between the speakers and the “audience.” (That means losing the podium or dais.) Leaders can also walk around Oprah-style to make the session more dynamic.

Tip: Develop a “show flow,” a detailed agenda with timing to set clear expectations for what needs to happen when. If presenters see they have 5 minutes, they’re less likely to drone on for 20. 

2. Give employees something they can’t get anywhere else

Don’t rehash the financial results that were posted last week on your company website. Instead, have your CEO talk openly about the achievements he’s most proud of or what keeps him awake at night. Science has proven that our brains love a good story. By sharing a personal story, your leader will connect with employees, build trust and create a culture of transparency. 

Tip: Ask your CEO to share memorable moments since the last town hall. One of my clients did just that after having visited various company locations to meet with employees and key external stakeholders. He gave shout-outs to the teams he spent time with and offered valuable insights about what he learned on his travels. Employees can’t get that from a press release.  

3. Encourage participation

Give employees a chance to be part of the action. You can use a tool like Poll Everywhere to ask questions, gather live responses and share the results. You can also go old school. Ask for a show of hands, applause or even have employees vote with their feet by moving to another part of the room.

Tip: Tired of radio silence when the CEO asks if there are any questions? Do a 180 and have the CEO pose a question to the audience to get the dialogue started. And leave plenty of time on the agenda for this key part of the town hall (20 minutes during a 60-minute meeting).

4. Do a slide makeover

I’ve seen a “rule” on some websites that a deck should have no more than 10 slides. Rather than cram too much information onto one slide, break it up into several slides. Advancing slides is dynamic; staying on one slide for 15 minutes is death by PowerPoint. When it comes to presentations, more is better.

Tip: Limit bullets and text. To avoid information overload, go for fewer words and large images.

5. Measure, measure, measure

Media companies analyze ratings to understand what consumers are watching on TV. Broadway shows keep a close eye on attendance and ticket sales. And you should do the same for your most important show. Distribute a short pulse survey (five questions) right after the town hall to measure satisfaction. Be sure to use the same questions each time to track progress. 

Tip: Worried that employees won’t take the survey? Encourage participation by letting employees know they’ve been heard. Make improvements based on their suggestions, tell them what’s changing and give them the credit. Once they know their opinions matter, they’ll take the time to tell you what they think.

You don’t have try all of these techniques at once. Try making one or two changes to see how it goes, gather feedback and make every town hall a show to remember. 


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