Follow the President’s Path and Make your Town Halls 2-Way
Last month, President Obama conducted a communication first—a virtual Town Hall meeting. Called “Open for Questions,” it united the President with both a live and virtual audience for a 75 minute dialogue about the US economy and other timely issues.Right from the start, the meeting was designed to promote interactivity. About 90% of the meeting was dedicated to a question-and-answer exchange between the President and live as well as videotaped participants. Absent was a stream of text-dominated presentation charts flavored with the latest buzzwords in 12-point type. Also absent were the President’s ‘handlers,’ his communications staff and direct reports, enabling a direct physical connection between President Obama and his audience.Meetings, like a Town Hall session, offer a huge platform for leaders in any arena—whether government, private industry or public company—to strike up a conversation with a large group of stakeholders. And while the cost to convene is high given time and logistical requirements, the investment is well worth it—if and when the meeting is done right.Here are 9 techniques to help you rev up interactivity at your next Town Hall meeting—and, in turn, maximize your investment and outcomes:Advertise for input. If you have a responsive communications process, use it to find out from your front-line employees what they want—and need—to hear about. Provide sufficient advance time before the Town Hall event to get direct feedback—a week is fine. Follow the President’s lead here and leverage the voice and face of the senior leader who is hosting the meeting to advertise for input. The more direct the request, the better—so use a streaming video on your web, a personal visit to the cafeteria during lunch or a podcast to connect the leader with front-line associates. In this advance communication, your leader should communicate the purpose of the meeting, topics that will be covered, and the importance of receiving direct questions. Stop the filters. Your collection process for advance feedback needs to be filter-free. In his advance promotion of his Town Hall meeting, President Obama outlined the simple and direct process for citizens to provide their advance questions. As he stated, “I want to open a direct line”—and he did for some 92,000 pre-submitted questions, by assuring that there was an “immediate submittal” process with “no prescreening. “ Filter-free processes are a sign of trust. Moreover, they are a fountain of learning for senior leaders who are generally insulated from the real voices of the workplace. Provide multiple outlets for advance feedback. Offer at least two or three ways for folks to submit advance questions. In Dulye & Co.’s Town Hall Meeting process, we create web-based, telephonic, paper-based and in-person outlets for gathering direct input from front-line associates. One creative approach that we use involves forming a diverse employee team (that’s right, no manager representatives) to speak personally with their co-workers and collect direct comments and questions. These team members are provided a copy of the meeting agenda, which they use to spark feedback pertinent to the meeting’s discussion topics. Other questions are encouraged as well. Put together an agenda. At least a week before the event, publish and distribute an agenda to all employees. Let them know what you plan to speak about so that they can come prepared to have a dialogue with you. Make sure the agenda identifies the speakers and allotted times to keep the meeting on track. Demonstrate the value of feedback. As mentioned earlier, you can encourage feedback by the design and format of your meeting. If 80% of your Town Hall meeting involves prepared remarks and charts, you’ve negated the opportunity for 2-way participation. A dedicated question-and-answer period shows that you’re serious about wanting to hear more from your employees. Even the layout of the actual meeting room can invite or deter participation. President Obama was encircled by participants at his March Town Hall Meeting. Those attending the live meeting were positioned to his right and left—and even behind the podium. A handheld microphone allowed him to move freely.Show appreciation. Be sure that the host/leader uses verbal and visual cues to thank individuals for their questions and encourage others to speak up, too. President Obama did a good job of showing appreciation with direct eye contact, an inviting smile and a conversational speaking tone—as well as in his actual word choices conveying appreciation.Check effectiveness. You’ll want to know what worked and what didn’t with the actual meeting. Build in time before the conclusion of the meeting—we recommend about four minutes—for participants to complete brief evaluation forms. Use paper forms for those in the actual meeting room, and an online version for those participating virtually. Use quantitative and qualitative questions in the evaluation, and include a few demographic questions. Focus on questions that probe knowledge and understanding. You’ll want to know if the format worked before repeating it and if your messages hit the mark. Report evaluation results. Share the results with your employees. Send a brief overview to your managers and supervisors for them to share with their employees during stand-up meetings or work center huddles. Where ratings fell short, develop corrective actions to improve the next meeting. And use ongoing communication practices to follow-up on questions and messages that need further clarification or reinforcement based on the evaluation data. Don’t lose momentum. You can, and should, keep the messages and momentum of the meeting alive long after the actual event. President Obama’s Town Hall is still available for viewing on YouTube. Similarly, by videotaping or audiotaping a Town Hall meeting, you too can make it available for review via internal web portals and podcasts. Task front-line supervisors to use staff meetings and team huddles in the weeks after the Town Hall to stir up discussion about key messages covered at the meeting and their local significance.Getting your Town Halls to be a positive and powerful 2-way experience just doesn’t happen on it’s own. Disciplined planning and preparation—before, during and after the actual meeting—goes a long way to maximizing the return on everyone’s time investment.