You Can Lead Better Town Hall Meetings
January 20, 2023
Town hall meetings are a powerful way to connect with a large audience in a personal setting. Although it's a popular format, many organizations still struggle with town hall meeting attendance and engagement—especially when they’re being held remotely.
Even successful town hall meetings may still miss opportunities for audience engagement. In this guide, we’re going to cover some town hall meeting basics, while also highlighting some simple strategies for improving outcomes.
What is a town hall meeting?
A town hall meeting is a venue for leaders to communicate with community members, share updates, present current events, and answer questions.
Traditionally, town hall meetings were a format politicians or town leaders used to talk with town citizens. Company town hall meetings offer organizational leaders a similar opportunity. This strategy can lead to more collaboration and better team communication; however, it also takes more preparation and intentional planning to succeed.
Preparing for the Meeting
Prep work is the first, and perhaps the most important step to leading a successful town hall meeting. Without preparation, town hall meetings can easily devolve into chaos. Presenters might forget to mention something critical, run out of time to say what they need to say, or lose track of the collaborative portion of the meeting altogether.
Below are a few key elements many successful town hall presenters will prepare in advance.
Choose a strong theme.
Town hall meetings don’t always need a theme, but having a theme can make them more engaging, while giving team members direction about how to engage.
For example, a meeting themed around interoffice communication invites employees to think ahead of time about communication — including any communication challenges they’re facing — which can elicit more insightful questions and feedback.
Solicit input from meeting participants.
Since one of the goals of town hall meetings is to collaborate with the community, it makes sense to include colleagues in the planning process. After choosing a theme for the upcoming town hall meeting, reach out to the team and solicit input.
Getting input ahead of time allows employees who can’t attend the meeting in person to submit their questions ahead of time and ensure their voice is heard. If there are concerns about the upcoming topic or major issues that need to be addressed, employees can give the presentation team a heads-up, allowing them to prepare more in-depth presentation materials.
Set an agenda.
Setting an agenda before the town hall meeting has several benefits. The first benefit of an agenda is that it helps presenters think about why they’re hosting the meeting and ensure that a meeting is actually required.
Agendas also give presenters a place to organize their thoughts before the town hall meeting to ensure they don’t forget to discuss something important.
If the conversation starts moving too far from the agenda, having a written schedule allows presenters to reel the audience back in. Suppose participants seem excited or riled up about a topic that’s not on the schedule. In that case, presenters can say, “This seems like an important conversation, and I’d love to continue it. Let’s continue the discussion asynchronously, and plan the next town hall meeting around this topic.”
Prepare engaging content.
After choosing a theme, receiving input, and creating a schedule, the next step is to prepare meeting content in an engaging and accessible format. Since you’ve already involved the audience, it’ll be easier to prepare engaging content.
No one likes to sit through long, dry lectures. Making meetings multi-sensory and fun is the easiest way to prevent the team from tuning out.
Tools like Canva can provide templates, making it easy for discussion leaders to organize information and integrate a mixture of media into their presentations.
Interactivity is another key to an engaging presentation. Instead of rehashing training materials in an onboarding town hall meeting, presenters could host a trivia game to keep the audience participating.
Running the Meeting
Successful and accessible town hall meetings aren’t usually run by one person. Presenters should consider enlisting the support of their colleagues to keep the meeting running smoothly.
Keeping minutes of meetings is a prime area where presenters need support. It’s practically impossible to present information and take notes on that information at the same time. Instead, record the meeting, recruit someone in attendance to type minute meetings and send them out after the meeting, use a transcription tool, or do all of the above. Recordings alone can be difficult to quickly scan for key info, automated transcriptions can misinterpret speakers, and human notetakers are limited by their own attention span and how quickly they can write.
Keeping comprehensive minute meetings is worth the effort, though.
- It provides everyone with a record of what was said, including important dates or information about who on the team needs to follow up on certain questions.
- It allows team members who weren’t present for part of the meeting to catch up on what they may have missed.
- It ensures that the rest of the participants don’t feel obligated to take notes, which allows them to participate more actively in discussions.
- If there are questions about something written in the meeting minutes, it may prompt follow-up questions, which can allow for clarification on communication.
Another role in a meeting can be keeping everyone on schedule. Team members who hate long-winded meetings may be eager to take on this role, which puts them in charge of reigning in the conversation if it gets too far off-track or calling an end to Q&A sessions that are dragging on too long.
Fielding questions in a town hall meeting isn’t as simple as asking if anyone has questions and responding to people who raise their hands.
For one thing, team members may have questions about a topic but aren’t in attendance. They may be absent that day, attend the meeting remotely, or be in a different time zone. For these team members, it’s important to offer an opportunity to ask questions asynchronously and have them answered in the main meeting.
Other team members may want to ask a question but feel uncomfortable asking in front of the group. For these team members, it’s most important to have a forum for asking questions anonymously.
One solution is to request team members send their questions in before the meeting. This allows managers to work questions and answers into their main presentations without mentioning who asked each question. Another option is to use an app like Slido or Polly, which allow people to submit questions anonymously in advance of meetings and during meetings. This provides space for asynchronous and anonymous questions while also allowing employees in attendance to respond to the flow of the meeting with questions at the moment.
Town hall meetings are all about improving interoffice communication. But they don’t work if there are members on the team who can’t access the information being provided or who can’t participate in the event while it’s going on.
Remote employees, employees with disabilities, and employees who aren’t present for the town hall meeting all have special considerations that presenters need to consider.
Keeping comprehensive minutes of meetings and allowing employees to ask questions asynchronously is a good first step, but it doesn’t fully solve the problem of accessibility.
Consider remote employees.
Remote employees will likely be attending meetings remotely as well. This can be challenging because the feed may cut in and out, or they may not be able to see everyone in the presentation.
One solution is to send presentation materials out ahead of time. This allows remote employees to review the materials and move through them in time with the presenter if they’re dealing with technical difficulties.
Another way to make meetings more accessible to remote employees is to offer online quizzes, brainstorming, or voting options, so that remote and in-person team members have the same opportunity to participate in collaborative portions of the meeting.
Accommodation supports engagement.
The challenges people face aren’t always visible, and some can make it difficult for team members to participate fully in a meeting.
For example, team members with sensory processing challenges may find attending a crowded event overwhelming. Allowing remote access to the meeting, even if the team members otherwise work in the office, can make the experience more enjoyable and ultimately engaging.
Team members who are deaf or hard of hearing may have trouble ascertaining what’s being said in a live setting, especially if presenters or audience members are talking over one another. This is another scenario where captions, minutes, recordings, and asynchronous participation options can be valuable.
These are just a couple examples, and may or may not fit every organization. The goal is to consider access and accommodation a top priority, making sure everyone can participate equally, and easily.
Don’t forget employees who are simply absent during presentation day.
There will always be employees who can’t attend meetings, either in-person or remotely. This may include:
- Employees who are sick or on vacation
- Employees who have another meeting or engagement scheduled at the same time
- Remote employees who work different hours or operate in a different time zone
- Part-time employees who don’t work during the meeting’s scheduled time
- Employees who aren’t hired until after the meeting but still need the information presented
For these employees, offering asynchronous participation options is crucial. Host the video recording, minutes, and all the supplemental materials in a prominent space that is easily searchable, like your company’s intranet.
Follow up after the presentation to ensure there aren’t any remaining questions about the presentation or materials.
Making a Good Thing Better
Town hall meetings are a great tool for engaging with a team, offering opportunities for collaboration, asking questions, and working through problems.
Enabling employees to participate actively in the meeting, regardless of their status within the team or their unique circumstances, empowers everyone to benefit from company town hall meetings. The more everyone benefits from these presentations, the more they’ll look forward to and engage in the next one.