Are Your Town Hall Meetings Missing Something?

Ice-breakers, questions, and stories from executives can transform corporate town halls from snorefests into engaging events.

Corporate town hall meetings can be deadly dull, so dull that it’s hard for employees to keep their attention focused on the presentation. I was curious if anything could be done to alleviate this.

I found a piece by Beth Sunshine on Up Your Culture, the Website of The Center for Sales Strategy that offers some pointers. Sunshine says the meeting should be inclusive of everyone at the company. That means it should not be restricted only to employees who have reached a particular level, or only those in particular job roles.

She also suggests starting with an ice-breaker. An easy way to do this, she says, is by asking a lighthearted question, such as what employees are currently binge watching on TV. Starting with a question that is easy and fun to answer gets employees engaged and makes them more amenable to listening to more serious content later in the presentation.

The Essential Role Played by Questions

Beyond using an ice-breaker question at the beginning of the presentation, questions play an important role throughout the meeting. Even after you have your employees’ attention, you will want to continue asking questions—and giving them an opportunity to ask you questions. From my own experience, the most valuable and interesting information often is revealed through employee questions.

For example, an employee might ask where the company’s leaders see the next phase of growth coming from. The answer to that question might tell employees how stable their own jobs are (if there is a chance their role might become redundant due to the addition of new businesses), and where they could have exciting career growth opportunities. The answer to this question also could tell employees how stable the company is. It might be that, in truth, the company has no growth goals or only very limited ones.

From the employee’s perspective, a town hall can feel like detective’s work, trying to read between the lines of the executives’ statements to piece together a picture of how safe and full of promise their jobs are, and whether there are any changes to their work life they may need to brace for.

Plan and Announce Meetings Well in Advance

Sunshine advises holding the meetings at a regular cadence and gathering questions in advance. I would agree with this advice. A hastily called town hall meeting can be scary for employees. The worst is when it’s announced just a couple days prior, and then the employees spend those two days worrying what it could be about.

Gathering questions in advance doesn’t mean you can’t also leave ample time for employees to ask on-the-fly questions. It just means your presenters will have a good supply of questions to get the conversation started.

In addition to the questions that are supplied in advance, having a jar as employees walk into the room where they can submit anonymous questions on little folded-up pieces of paper is a safe way to enable questions that express true feelings. When on paper, questions become safely anonymous (no one should be standing next to the jar watching as people submit questions).

Questions that are likely to appear in that jar include those about cost-of-living and merit increases in pay, return-to-office policies, the condition of the physical office space, business travel budgets, hiring budgets, whether there are likely to be layoffs in the coming year, and why creature comforts in the company or in employee fringe benefits have been eliminated.

Keep It Real

My own recommendation is for executives to offer sincere words and reflections in addition to the presentation of financial statistics and numbers. Each presenting executive could share a personal story from their work life. They could share a story highlighting how rewarding their job is, or a story that spotlights a recent challenge that they are either still working through or that they experienced the satisfaction of solving.

How do you ensure your town halls are effective and engaging?