Despite your best intentions, you’ve been struggling to get employees to participate during virtual town halls meetings. Sure, employees attend the town halls because they’re interested in information being presented. But employees ask very few questions, which makes you wonder if they’re actually engaged.
While there are a number of techniques you can use to bolster participation, there’s one challenge you need to address before you can completely solve the problem: boring content.
I know the truth hurts. But the fact is, the content at many town hall meetings is just not that compelling. That’s why you need to stage a content intervention. Here are three common content problems and how to solve them:
1. Old news
Many town halls share information that employees already know, making content as stale as last week’s bread.
You can create content that’s fresh and unexpected; you just need to work at it. Here are three ideas:
- Don’t rehash the quarterly financial report; instead ask the CFO to share what analysts are most concerned about.
- Don’t reiterate all seven strategic initiatives; focus on one strategy. Invite an internal expert to explain what it means. Create a breakout session where employees share perspectives on the issue.
- Don’t repeat content that’s been shared externally; figure out how to make key topics fresh and unexpected. For example, don’t review safety statistics; develop stories about how employees have taken steps to improve workplace safety. And step away from PowerPoint to show photos, play audio or create a short video.
2. Too much
One of the most common town hall mistakes is including too many different topics.
Instead of designing the session from the objectives down, organizers go around collecting topics from key stakeholders:
- Most organizers start with topics “we always cover”: financial performance, other quarterly results and a review of priorities.
- Then a senior leader suggests adding a segment on a key initiative.
- Another leader chimes in that “we have to include time to talk about X.”
- At the 11th hour, the CEO remembers that “we absolutely need to cover Y.”
By the time the town hall begins, there are 10 or 12 topics shoehorned into 40 minutes of presentation time. That means the town hall agenda seems like a laundry list or rice at a wedding (unstructured content that seems random and scattered).
The result? The town hall isn’t interesting while it’s occurring and isn’t memorable afterwards.
A town hall isn’t an information-delivery channel; it’s a key tool in the campaign to win the hearts and minds of employees. So you need to think differently about the way you create your agenda and help the leader develop his/her content. Ask yourself: “How can you put this town hall together to raise employees’ energy and leave them feeling more motivated than when they came in?”
That’s why you should limit your agenda to no more than three key topics (yes, only three) and keep the level of detail to a minimum. Having fewer, more focused topics will help keep employees interested—and will allow plenty of time for participation.
3. Vague abstractions
Concepts like “quality,” “customer service” and “innovation” sound good, don’t they? But what do they mean—especially in terms of what employees need to do differently?
Unless these concepts are brought to life, they’re just platitudes. That’s why one of the most important things you can do to make town hall content more compelling is to help leaders tell stories.
After all, storytelling is both essential and elemental. In fact, human beings are still wired the way we were in prehistoric times, when we hunted and gathered our food out in the wild, walked home barefoot and burned mastodon meat on the campfire.
Since humans are programed to listen when the story starts, you instantly capture attention—whether it’s a tale of two cities or a simple little tale about how Fred made the irate customer happy, despite the odds.
In short, you need to focus on stories during town halls because:
- We want to be entertained, not lectured to. A story makes us think: “This is going to be interesting,” not, “Am I going to be tested on this?”
- Stories teach subtly and indirectly. Instead of hitting us over the head, stories imply the message. As historian and social philosopher Hannah Arendt said, “Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.”
- A story feels authentic, not packaged or spun. As Christopher Locke writes in Gonzo Marketing, the internet has created a new “campfire” that encourages the free exchange of stories. “We have gotten used to talking amongst ourselves in uncontrived, unpremeditated human voices.”
- The experience of a story draws people together. Here’s Christopher Locke again “The best stories can become myths that draw people together, create entire cultures. The people within the culture so created are not strangers to each other precisely because they know the old stories. They share and reflect on them. They remember together. This creates powerful cohesion, even identity.”
A story can be about anything: the leader’s experience with a customer, a team’s efforts to make a tough deadline, what happened when a supplier struggled to meet demand.
With any of these content challenges, the point is to reject bad content—and work hard to share content that matters to employees. As a result, employees will not only pay attention in virtual town halls; they’ll fully participate.