5 ways to host better town halls

Hold your meeting in the round. Lower the height of the stage. These and other tips from a global ed-tech company can turn around those dreary all-employee events.

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan Communications’ distance-learning portal Ragan Training. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations and interactive courses.

Perhaps you’ve attended town hall meetings where bored audience members struggle to stay awake or furtively peek at their smartphones, oblivious to the chief executive’s pep talk.

If you’ve ever longed for a better way to get your message across in a meeting, Alison Pase has a few pointers for you.

Pase is vice president of internal communications for Cengage Learning, a global ed-tech company in Boston, and she offers her tips in the Ragan Training webinar, “Create Amazing Town Hall Meetings: Practical, cost-effective ways to reinvent your next employee event.”

“This is a huge part of what we do in internal communications, regardless of how big or small the groups or companies are that we’re working with,” Pase says.

Here are five takeaways from her session:

1. Hold your town halls in the round.

In so many town halls, managers or senior leaders make little effort to engage employees, who respond with slack-faced boredom. How can you change that?

Pase says town hall planners at Centage wanted to signal a new approach with the hiring of a new CEO. They asked, “How can we make everyone feel like they’re connected to the new CEO, the new leadership?”

The theater-in-the-round approach is more intimate, she says, and it even works with a relatively big crowd. (Centage draws 700 to its meetings.) Attendees are closer to the people onstage, she says: “It feels like you’re part of it.”

2. Adjust the stage.

At Cengage, they keep the stage at 12 inches or lower, even for its 700-person town halls. It’s a bad message, Pase says, to have presenters looking down from Olympian heights. Lowering the stage helps the audience feel more engaged and more comfortable asking questions.

“Being a little closer to eye level makes an enormous difference,” Pase says.

For groups of 300 people or fewer, Cengage doesn’t even put a stage in the middle. The audience can see presenters just fine.

Also, set up a square stage in a diamond shape in relation to rectangular walls, rather than aligning two sides of the stage parallel to the walls. This, too, pulls in an in-the-round audience.

When there are two speakers, Cengage places them in opposite corners so they face different parts of the room, rather than lining them up. Employees jokingly call this “the boxing ring.”

If that creates problems with screen presentations, well, Pase recommends getting rid of the screens altogether. Just stand up there and talk, she says. (If you insist on screens, add extras so everyone has at least one within view.)

It’s harder to ditch the videos and PowerPoints, she admits, but you will be “creating this sense of an intimate space and intimate connection to the leadership.”

3. Limit the number of rows of seats.

Rather than create long halls where employees at the back are far from the speaker, limit the Siberian seating. Again, in-the-round seating is one way to do this. People are closer to the presenters, so there’s less opportunity for those in the back to fiddle with their mobile devices.

“You probably don’t want to be the person sitting in the back on your device,” Pase says, “because it’s extremely noticeable to people on the other side of the stage.”

4. Prepare thoroughly.

Pase offers a series of suggestions, starting with creating a “prep document” and meeting with your chief executive or presenter for discussion of goals. Add to that an on-site rehearsal. Ask leaders to mingle beforehand, and provide snacks or beverages during the “pre-show” to relax the audience.

Schedule 30 minutes for Q&A, and be prepared to add an extra 10 minutes. Your exec can say, “Oh, gosh, guys. We’re running over, but I really want to get in a few more questions. Let’s do three more.”

Then ask your CEO or other top leaders to stick around for 20 minutes of mingling afterward. They get flooded like rock stars, Pase says-a much better conclusion than all that employee mumbling and shuffling back to their desks to do what they regard as their real work.

“Here, people feel that they are doing real work, and that this is very valuable to them,” Pase says.

5. Ask employees to stick around for focus groups.

When measuring, don’t “over-tech it” or assess audience size with click-counters. Instead, get some intelligence out of participants.

Tell your audience that you’re doing quick focus groups: “Come give us your feedback. We’re going to give it directly to the CEO.”

She proposes a series of questions to ask. Among them, find out what messaging struck employees in the presentation, what wasn’t covered that they wanted to know, and what would they like to hear more about.

That way, they’ll leave energized rather than wishing for a siesta. And you’ll have an idea what messages to bolster through further communication.



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