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Transform Virtual Town Halls to Engage Your Employees

virtual town halls
Credit: istockphoto.com/filodendron

It’s no wonder that employee town halls have long been a staple of internal communication. After all, these forums are a great way to bring leaders and employees together face to face to discuss important issues.

But since the COVID-19 crisis, organizations have had to rethink town halls to make them 100% virtual. And many communicators have been struggling with how to make these events participatory and engaging.

The good news is this: Today’s virtual sessions can actually be better than your old town halls. I’m inspired by this quote by Rahm Emanuel, former White House chief of staff and Chicago mayor: “Never let a serious crisis go to waste…it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

This, then, is your opportunity to transform virtual town halls. After all, organizations need town halls more than ever. They’re a valuable way for employees to hear from leaders, which builds trust. And town halls bring people together from various locations and functions, so they create a sense of community.

So how do you take advantage of this opportunity? Start with this premise: Every town hall—including the virtual kind—is an event, not a presentation.

In the past, when you prepared for your organization’s next employee town hall meeting, you may have made this classic mistake: focusing almost exclusively on organizing information to fill the hour. By taking that approach, you end up with a collection of information. The CEO gives a presentation about the strategy. The CFO shares financial results. An initiative leader provides an update. Someone from HR talks about something HR-y. Any questions? (No, because zzzzzz.)

But the best town hall is an event—in fact, it’s an experience. Merriam-Webster defines experience as “the process of doing and seeing things and of having things happen to you.”

What are the elements that create an experience? From Broadway productions to TV talk shows, experiences are:

  • Choreographed
  • Memorable
  • Energizing
  • Participatory

How do you create a meaningful town hall experience? Here are five ways:

1. Focus on one (or, at most, three) objectives

Start by asking yourself the pivotal question that will be the difference between a spectacular success or a crushing failure: “What is the one thing I need this town hall to accomplish?”

This, of course, is another way of determining outcomes or objectives. Here’s another way of stating it: What does success look like?

For example, choose an objective like: “create learning about an issue that’s vital to the organization” or “motivate employees to take action.”

2. Rely on your friend, the agenda

The old-fashioned word for your town hall plan is “agenda,” but you need to do more than create a bulleted list of content. Structure your meeting to have a flow that makes sense, build in opportunities for participants to, well, participate, and to manage time effectively.

Create an agenda that choreographs what will occur and when and helps you:

  • Devote time to things that matter most.
  • Set aside blocks of time for important topics.
  • Allow adequate time for participation.

That means limiting the number of topics to no more than three (yes, three). And building a story arc to manage the flow. A “story arc” is a term that fiction writers, Broadway playwrights and Hollywood screenwriters use to describe the ups and downs of a narrative. For virtual town halls, a story arc describes the emotional lows (discussing a serious issue) and highs (celebrating success) that create energy.

3. Love the technology

Every platform—Zoom, WebEx, Microsoft Teams—has an array of interesting features that will make your meeting much more interesting than the usual PowerPoint festival. Get to know what the meeting platform has to offer and become comfortable with every feature. To learn what your technology can do, take advantage of online tutorials or web workshops.

4. Curate content

Communicators who facilitate successful town halls don’t aggregate information; they carefully select content. That means eliminating every piece of information that’s not essential to tell your story. Town halls don’t happen very often, so it’s tempting to want to talk about everything that has happened since the last one. But there’s a limit to how much information people can process before they suffer from overload.

This selection process includes:

  • Sharing financial results only if you bring them to life for employees. Dense charts don’t create understanding. Relate numbers to what the organization needs to work on next.
  • Going deep instead of covering a wide range of topics. For example, instead of reiterating all seven strategic initiatives, focus on one strategy. Invite an internal expert to explain what it means. Ask employees to share their perspectives on the issue.
  • Bringing a fresh and unexpected element to every topic. Don’t review safety statistics; develop stories about how employees have taken steps to improve workplace safety.

5. Choreograph participation

It can be intimidating for employees to raise their hands when they’re sitting together in a big room. So here’s one key advantage of virtual town halls—participation is actually easier and safer.

Of course, facilitating interaction does require effort. Here are a few tips:

  • Allow plenty of time for participation. Devote enough time to set up the discussion, facilitate dialogue and build momentum.
  • Use the tools available in most web meetings:
    • Polls. A simple one-question poll is an effective icebreaker.
    • Chat. Allow everyone to ask questions or make comments throughout the meeting.
    • Whiteboards/note pads. Yes, you can brainstorm virtually. Ask participants to share challenges or opportunities and record them on the whiteboard.
  • Instead of calling for questions, coach leaders to pose a question. Even in the most open, supportive culture, it’s risky for employees to expose potential ignorance by asking a question. But if the leader poses a question—like “What are the obstacles to achieving this objective?”—employees have the opportunity to participate from a position of strength. And in a virtual town hall, employees can enter their responses in the chat box.

It takes a bit of work to facilitate a great virtual town hall, but the effort pays off: You accomplish your objectives because employees participate. Or, as author Dave Pelzer writes, “Something good comes out of every crisis.”

Alison Davis

Alison Davis is CEO of Davis & Company, which since 1984 has helped organizations reach, engage and motivate employees. Interested in learning more about improving town halls? For fellow IABC members, I’m offering a free download of my e-book, Revitalize Employee Town Hall Meetings.  

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