Sit down with host, Alyssa Zeff, and her guest, Deb Capua to learn how to energize town halls. These big meetings have evolved over time from a channel to deliver news to an opportunity to engage and have dialogue with employees. Don’t get stuck in the past or create agendas for political reasons. Learn how to take town halls to the next level.

Episode transcript: 

Alyssa Zeff:     
Hi everybody. Welcome back. I am Alyssa Zeff, your former cheerleading captain, closet opera fan, and John Hughes movie lover. I'm here with Deb Capua, a project consultant here at Davis & Company. Welcome Deb.

Debra Capua: 
Thank you. Good to be here.

Alyssa Zeff:     
Tell us something interesting that our listeners may not know about you.

Debra Capua: 
Well, I started my career as a peanut vendor at Shea Stadium when I was a teenager.

Alyssa Zeff:
Wow. Have you been back to Citi Field?

Debra Capua:
No, I haven’t, and I've got to get there. We love the Mets.

Alyssa Zeff:
Oh, I'm a Yankee fan. I won't hold that against you.

Debra Capua:
Okay.

Alyssa Zeff:
But the... And as Yankee fans, we don't really hate the Mets. We just hate the Red Sox.

Debra Capua:
But we hate the Yankees.

Alyssa Zeff:
Yes, exactly. You should go to Citi Field; it's pretty amazing. My first job was actually as a babysitter, which is not surprising. I did work at a sports apparel store in the mall for about three weeks. And then that didn't stick well with me.

Alyssa Zeff:
So today we're going to talk about town halls, a topic that is very near and dear to both of us. Our CEO, Alison Davis, has really been on a mission to improve town halls for the last several years. So, when you and I sat down and started thinking about what are we going to talk about, this was the first idea and it really works. And we've both spent time working in-house at big companies and have experienced town halls, both the good and the bad. So, I think we'll have some fun talking about this today, and hopefully, help our listeners learn something.

Debra Capua: 
I think so.

Alyssa Zeff:     
Let's start with why are town halls important, especially why are they important for employees?

Debra Capua: 
Well, I think for employees it really gives them a sense of a community—where they are, where they fit in, and that they're part of something bigger. And it should be something that will leave them very energized and very excited and inspired to go back and do their jobs. Unfortunately, that doesn't always happen, but yeah, I think that's why they really are important to bring everyone together.

Alyssa Zeff:     
I agree completely and I think people really look forward to it. Employees don't get a lot of face to face. Most employees don't get a lot of face to face with senior leaders and CEOs especially. So, this is—once a quarter or however frequently they're holding them—a chance to really get that face time.

Alyssa Zeff:     
How do you think town halls have evolved over the last several years?

Debra Capua: 
Well, I think there's a couple of things. I think it used to be that that was a place where people got news. They don't need to go there to get the news anymore and I think that employees today are really looking for experiences. They want to be part of the action and have something memorable they can walk away with.

Alyssa Zeff:     
Absolutely. Building on what you said about the news, it used to be an—and I discussed this with Alison as well, when we first talked, and this has come up in a few of our other episodes—it used to be that people went to these types of meetings because they didn't have anywhere else to get that information. Now by the time the meeting has happened, it's old news, the press release is out, the social media has taken off long before the press release even hits the wire, so to speak. So, I think that you're really onto something, which is, they're looking for something different and looking to get something out of this and maybe even share something as well, have an opportunity to have their voice heard.

Alyssa Zeff:
So, we've worked with a lot of clients in helping them with their town halls. What will you think is your biggest frustration when it comes to trying to develop an engaging town hall experience?

Debra Capua: 
Only one?

Alyssa Zeff:     
As many as we have time for.

Debra Capua: 
Well I do think this idea tends to be very pervasive, about sharing the news and it starts to feel like a laundry list of things. We have to cover this, and we have to cover that. And if we don't cover this, people will be upset. The other frustration is they fear the technology, so it's hard to get them to want to do something different. They've had bad experiences in the past with whatever web platform they were using for a meeting, whether it's Webex or Zoom. And so they're afraid of that. They're afraid of bringing in video. And we need to change. We need to grow and do things differently. And a lot of times, folks are very stuck in the past.

Alyssa Zeff:     
Yeah. So, to build on a few things that you've said, which I completely agree with. The laundry list, it also becomes very political. Oh, we heard from this person, so we have to hear from this person. And we heard from this person, so we have to hear from this person. I mean, I had an experience at my last company at a town hall where they had 17 speakers, and it was just go, go, go, go, go, go, go. And there was just no value. And it was a really exciting topic and they just completely deflated it because it was so much conversation. And so much talking at people just to make sure that everybody's egos were satisfied. I really feel like if you're going to take the time to bring people into a room, you have to make it an experience that they can't get anywhere else. If you're just dumping information on them that they can get off the website, then why'd you bring them together?

Debra Capua: 
Right. They don't need to be there. They could have stayed at their desk and gotten things done and left on time.

Alyssa Zeff:     
Yes. So, you mentioned technology. I want to build on that a little bit. I think there's some great tools out there. So, sort of rapid-fire list. What are some of the tools that you think can increase engagement at town halls?

Debra Capua: 
Oh, Poll Everywhere. Chat function in the various web tools. Even something like voting with your feet. I mean, why not, you know, ask for applause, show of hands. Anything that gets people participating.

Alyssa Zeff:     
Yeah, absolutely. Another one that we've seen that's been very effective is a Catchbox mic, which is a very soft, almost pillow like microphone that people throw around the room to get engagement. And I think sometimes technology means going a little bit old school, like you said, participation by voting with your feet. I've seen town halls where they had people get up and use string to connect the dots on various topics. I recently participated in a meeting where they used competitive polling as part of Poll Everywhere, which was a live competition and that was very engaging, and people got very excited about it because the leaderboard forms live, and they can see their names on there, so it became a big part of it.

Alyssa Zeff:
In your years of experience, I'm sure you've sat through a lot of town halls. I know I have. Tell me about a very memorable experience when it came to a town hall.

Debra Capua:
Well the last job I was in, in a corporation, was for a company that makes consumer electronics, including headphones, and they were coming out with a whole new line of headphones. And the marketers introduced them in a really exciting and fun way. They did a fashion show and so one of the headphones was really great for traveling executives because it was noise canceling. And so, someone came in dressed in a business suit with a briefcase. One of them was an exercise freak, and my colleague was pregnant at the time and came in full exercise gear. And I will never forget it. She had these really colorful exercise freak headphones. And it was just a really memorable town hall with a fashion runway and everything.

Alyssa Zeff:
My most memorable town hall at my last company, which is a large global company, the CEO and the head of HR just sat in the room and it was a giant sort of Greek amphitheater style auditorium. And they sat there. And it was a little bit of a rough time for the company, the stock price wasn't doing as well as it had in the past. And there were a recently layoffs. And there were lots of rumors, just tons of rumors. And there were no slides and there were no presentations. They started by saying, let us tell you what we've been hearing about the rumors and just one by one ticked off these rumors that they knew were going around and just addressed them head on and then said, we want to hear from you. And it set such a tone of comfort and that any topic was okay and they weren't afraid of questions that were coming at them. And like I said, there wasn't a single slide used. I was at that company for 10 years. This meeting was probably one of the first years that I was there, and it stands out so much because of that. If you're taking the time to bring people into a room, make it different than just pushing information at them.

Debra Capua:
Oh, and that kind of openness and transparency, I mean, you just can't beat that.

Alyssa Zeff:
Yeah, absolutely.

Alyssa Zeff:
So, we always like to close our episodes with some advice. If our listeners could change one thing about town halls, what would you like it to be?

Debra Capua:
Probably the dreaded Q and A section at the end. Everybody leaves time for it and then they get frustrated because they say Deb, we left this time open and now we're getting crickets. Or we get radio silence. And I think, again, get employees to talk, ask them a question. So, get the party started by hearing what they have to say. And then it usually just moves on from there. I worked with a client who did change up their town halls, made them like a talk show and the CEO started the Q and A section by saying, so tell me what you think of the format. And the questions just started coming in, both by phone and in the chat function of the meeting tool. So, it was really great.

Alyssa Zeff:     
Terrific. Thank you.

Alyssa Zeff:     
Town halls really are such a terrific opportunity to engage employees. So, I hope our listeners have learned a few things here today. Deb, thank you so much for joining me and sharing your experience.

Debra Capua: 
Thank you.

Alyssa Zeff:     
Thanks for listening to Employee Buzz, where practical advice meets fun. We want to know what topics you're interested in hearing, so rate and review on your podcast platform.

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