Your town hall audience may be cold, reluctant to participate

It’s town hall time again. The big room has been booked, the A/V guys are getting their equipment ready, presentations are being polished. But no matter how prepared you are, you still haven’t solved the toughest challenge of all: encouraging employees to ask questions.

I’ve written before about why employees don’t raise their hands at town halls. The two key reasons: First, the content being presented is too complex, abstract and boring, so employees can’t even think of a question to ask. And second, it’s intimidating to address the CEO in front of hundreds of your colleagues.

But there’s a third reason that might surprise you: By the time the Q&A session begins, the employee audience is cold.

I’m not referring to the temperature; I’m using to a term used most often by comedians, who call an audience “cold” when its members are stiff, inert and unresponsive.

People in entertainment know that you can’t expect an audience to transition from passivity to wild applause in just a moment. That’s why every television show with an audience (from The Daily Show to Dr. Oz) follows a process to warm up the audience before the show starts. There are comedians who specialize in this role, and they not only tell jokes; they also use a variety of techniques to involve audience members.

I’m not suggesting you hire a comedian for your next town hall. But, if you’re serious about encouraging participation, you need to give employees the opportunity to warm up. Here are three quick ideas:

  1. Give them something to do. This can be as simple as raising hands or as complex as online voting. The point is to create an activity that unfreezes employees’ brains and gets their metabolism going.
  2. Let them talk to each other. Standing up in front of everyone is very hard. But chatting with your neighbor is easy. So create an exercise where employees address an issue in very small groups (of two or three). Then invite some to share what they talked about. The bravest will start, then more will gain courage.

  3. Ask a question employees can easily answer. The least intimidating way to participate is to share something from one’s own experience. For example, the CEO might say to a group of customer service reps, “What do our customers tell you we should do differently to better meet their needs?”

I’ve got many more ideas on how to warm up employees and create participation. Just reach out and I'll be happy to chat.

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