Many companies strive to be transparent when it comes to corporate decisions, and town hall meetings are an opportunity to demonstrate openness. However, being more open can increase the risk of contradictory statements, which ruin leaders' credibility. If messaging from the top is inconsistent, trust deteriorates.
Depending on the topic and audience, the host or moderator of a town hall meeting should be skilled in delivering talking points and managing or deflecting difficult questions, particularly if the press and public are present. Think White House Press Secretary.
Here’s how to deftly lead, plan, and manage a town hall meeting so that you deliver a consistent message that’s on point. We also explain how to lead a meeting that is delivering bad news, how to respond to politically sensitive questions and provide tips for engaging your audience and ensuring feedback.
A town hall meeting, also known as an all-hands meeting, brings the entire company together to get them all on the same page. The purpose of a town hall meeting could be a monthly roundup of company updates, news, and events, to make an announcement, rally people to a cause, or get feedback on a topic.
Sometimes, company meetings will include just team members and leaders. In other cases, they may be open to the public. They may be held at set times, say once a month, or they may be scheduled when needed.
Hosting or leading a town hall meeting can be tricky, and it requires skill. A survey by Slack in 2018 found that almost 90 percent of employees want more transparency in the workplace, but with transparency comes risk. Leaders must be careful to deliver a consistent message because mixed messages affect employee morale. Staff learn to doubt their leaders and decisions if they do not show a united front.
A town hall's audience may include stakeholders that range from shareholders to employees to customers. The town hall leader may face difficult and challenging questions that need to be answered deftly. Answering them well may require expert knowledge, awareness of the company’s position on a certain issue, and instinct about how much information to share.
Before leading any meeting, you should plan the agenda, what you are going to say, and how you will say it. Here's how to plan a town hall meeting, followed by tips on delivering more difficult news to stakeholders.
Take a systematic approach to planning a town hall. It will boost your confidence and ensure a better experience for all.
Is your meeting a regularly scheduled town hall to deliver the latest news, answer questions, and invite feedback? If so, prepare by making sure you are briefed in company events so that you can provide accurate information. Also, allot some time to think about what questions you may be asked, particularly think of challenging questions that may arise and how you should answer them.
Check the minutes from the last meeting to find out if there are any follow-ups you should address in the meeting you are planning.
Once you know what you will discuss, create a meeting agenda. List the topics and an estimated timeline. Also, show the time allotted for Q&A. Have a goal for the meeting and convey that in your agenda.
Share the agenda with all potential attendees in advance so that they have time to think about what they may want to ask or contribute. Also, share any background data, documents, or media that will help others to prepare for the meeting and the topics to be discussed.
Use the first few minutes of your introduction to set the tone. Give a warm welcome, and summarize the purpose of the meeting and its goals. Is the town hall a chance for everyone to speak up or ask questions? If yes, say so.
If you would rather not field Q&As at this point, say so, but also say when you will be able to do so and whether the decision is due to time constraints or a lack of definitive data. Keep the conversation open by being transparent.
Remember that your tone reflects the company culture. You can be positive and energetic or reserved and guarded. The former promotes a safer and more inclusive environment where people will be more inclined to speak up and offer ideas and possible solutions or initiatives.
Be positive, even if you are delivering bad news. Use difficult times to instill hope by explaining that necessary changes will lead to better times and give the reasons for any executive decision you are announcing.
A town hall is a great way to get people out of their silos and together to discuss an issue. It is also an opportunity to break down barriers and boost employee engagement by providing access to senior leaders.
This may be a time when employees can ask questions of leaders, which they may not be able to do otherwise. If executives are willing to attend and field questions, it can build trust between employees and leaders and improve engagement.
The town hall should be recorded. The minutes of the meeting and any decisions made should be documented. All employees and stakeholders should have access to the document through internal communications. This document will be important for setting the kick-off for the next town hall when follow-up may be needed on various subjects discussed.
You may be tasked with hosting a town hall where you must deliver bad or critical news or answer difficult questions. In this case, it will be a considerable task to carefully plan and deliver the right message. You will need to use the right tone and expertly respond to a barrage of questions during a Q&A session, some of which could be politically sensitive.
Let’s look at how to prepare for this type of town hall.
The biggest concern when conveying critical information is that the message does not damage the trust between stakeholders and leaders.
The message about company goals needs to be consistent, and the deliverer must be credible. Rumors may have been flooding the workplace, so a town hall meeting is a chance to deliver the truth and dispel the gossip. Still, if the town hall leader is saying something different from what the CEO told a reporter last week, that’s going to be a problem.
All branches of an organization and the leadership team should come together to craft the message before any town hall, and no one should veer from that message. Communication has to be airtight, or distrust will creep in.
Many organizations choose one spokesperson to be the main contact for corporate messaging and PR to ensure the same message is conveyed at all times.
Make your presentation compelling but as brief as possible. Use “headlining” to get your points across. Start with the headline, which is your main message, briefly explain the points behind the headline using data to make your case, and then recap the headline at the end.
Have subject matter experts to hand who can delve deeper into details if need be. As a leader, you should be well-informed, but you don’t need to know everything. You can turn to others to field a question. Just be consistent with the messaging.
It’s important to be transparent and share information that explains corporate decisions. People can accept a tough decision if they understand the reasons for it. If they don’t, they may resist, and that resistance can negatively influence morale.
This is the most challenging part of leading a town hall. Question time!
Make sure you understand your company's position on any issue. Meet with your supervisor and executive group to nail down what you should and should not say regarding anything that is politically sensitive.
Try to anticipate the questions that are likely to come up, or ask invitees to post their questions in advance if possible. However, if the audience does not know what you will present in the town hall, it will be difficult for them to come up with questions. Thoroughly research the subjects to be discussed in the town hall and have data ready to back up your points.
Answer questions confidently, but don’t give an answer that you are unsure of. That can get you into trouble. If you are uncertain as to how to answer a question, you can always say that you will look into it and get back to the questioner. Give a date and stick to it, so that you seem reliable and respectful.
If the goal of your town hall is to get feedback. Consider using technology to engage your audience, such as electronic voting tools and wireless keypads. The survey results or votes can be collected in real-time and displayed on a monitor so that participants can immediately discuss the findings.
If your workforce is hybrid, or you have employees in different time zones, use conference software to host a virtual town hall meeting so that remote employees can participate. Also, record the virtual event for those who are unable to attend. Examples of popular video conferencing apps are Livestorm, Brightcove, and Microsoft Stream.
Finally, conduct a test run using your equipment before the town hall to make sure everything works smoothly. Now you’re ready to confidently host a productive town hall!