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The Science of Town Halls and Employee Alignment

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

“Town Halls” or “All Hands” sessions, if done consistently, are powerful internal communication platforms for organizations to connect with employees, share plans, engage in conversations and gauge feedback. Some organizations invest a lot of time and attention into getting these interactions right and involve advertising and event management agencies to package the sessions as ‘events,’ thereby creating a ‘wow’ effect that will help audiences retain the message.

My personal take is that such sessions need to be managed and run in-house since the internal communicator has a lot more context, better relationships and insight into messages and key internal information. There are broadly three levels of content that employees are interested in knowing – company, office and team. Therefore, the content and approach needs to address the company’s plans and strategy, the office updates and team events such as recognitions and performance updates.

Knowing how to conduct such sessions is a science, and I can safely say that I am still learning the ropes. However, based on my experiences with conducting such sessions at various Indian and multinational organizations, what follows are some best practices that I am able to distill and share.

Recently, I was closely involved in championing a series of such sessions that aimed at getting powerful content fused with even more compelling presentations.

It is clear that any such exercise needs leadership maturity and the commitment of time and effort in order to make a substantial impact. It takes a lot more energy and drive to inspire people to focus on the brand, the organizational goals and how each one can partner to make it successful.

These sessions are coordinated to time with public facing and client-specific announcements. Senior leaders from across locations deliver content real-time, ensuring everyone is on board with how to go forward.

I managed and witnessed numerous such sessions in my previous workplaces, but nothing compares to the passion and drive seen when people rally together, speak the same language and align to the same vision.

Here are my top recommendations while planning and executing these sessions. One caveat – town halls or leadership-employee interactions are not a one-off exercise and requires the commitment of the leadership to ensure continuity and consistency.

First the basics, then the jazz: Always get the ‘who, what, when, where and how’ of communication clarified up front. It is safer to set up a pre-event call and run a high level plan by senior leaders on the process of rollout. One of the common mistakes I have observed is that internal communication teams invest too much time in ‘creating’ or ‘hyping’ the session as an event rather than focusing on the content and delivery. Finally, what matters is content and how employees perceive it. A town hall or an all-hands is not “show-time,” but an opportunity for dialogue. Remember, your employees are sparing their valuable time to come and listen to you – make it count.

What you say is what you mean: Very often (and unfortunately), I notice the attention paid to developing key messages is probably only about 5 percent of the overall effort of running town halls. To me, it should ideally take over 75 percent of your time to get the message right. Rather than ‘recall’ your messages, it makes more sense to get them right the first time. In key messages development, it important to understand cultural nuances so as to suit all geographies, locations and languages. In this specific rollout, effort taken to include India-specific content and case studies helped employees relate better. Work out the ‘what’s in it for me’ perspective in every communication.

Plan your town hall strategy: Planning is the most critical element of successful town halls. From the timing (avoiding sessions around holidays or close to long weekends) to the frequency (having one large session or multiple sessions depending on the nature of the content), it is essential to think through the process of running a town hall. Just like the way appropriate channels are critical to reaching your audiences, similarly, it helps to place the right presenter with the relevant teams you are targeting. From my experience, I have found that employees are able to relate to speakers who directly or indirectly affect their careers, growth and performance. Also, people are able to speak more freely in smaller, close-knit groups they are familiar with.

Aligning your presenters: Once your content package is ready, it is important to select speakers who can deliver the messages and rally employees. While a single round of sessions may only be the ‘start’ of any conversation, understanding the personalities of each presenter is useful. Usually, a preparation call or meeting is driven by the internal communication team, briefing the presenter or presenters on possible questions that employees may ask along with suitable talking points.

Packing a punch with your content: Create and make presentation material and videos available for presenters. They need all the ammunition possible to make an impact. From my experience, interspersing video content with slides adds the much-needed stimulus and also allows for informed conversations.

Timing your communication: Employees need sufficient lead-time to plan their work and be prepared with questions to ask. Therefore, ensure the calendar invites are sent at least a week prior to the sessions. Be sure to tell employees that the town hall schedules and venues may change while the team continues mapping the speakers’ and venue’s availability. If there is a possibility of releasing marketing-facing messages, ensure that you share them first with your employees before they hit the press.

Murphy’s Law and other factors: Conducting town halls involves people, technology and communication. While we can control most of these elements, factor in situations where your tools and resources may not function as planned. Have suitable back-ups for presenters, equipment and venues. Invest time to test and verify that the systems work before you engage your audiences. Most often, compatibility issues with projectors, microphones, sound systems and laptops can cause a lot of hiccups unless you test the set-up. On D-Day, have a process for sending out the announcements and reminders, tracking session completion, conducting an exit poll and capturing questions that employees ask.

Get feedback to get better at town halls: I am a firm believer in getting feedback on the content, presenters and format of the sessions. Also, get feedback almost instantaneously so that your audience can recollect their thoughts easily. Poll the presenters to understand what worked well and what needed fixing. This feedback enables internal communications to revisit their plans, restructure content and include positive changes for improved communication.

Share your plans with your stakeholders: Depending on the content shared during your sessions, there is a possibility that other stakeholders including new hires, partners, clients, agencies and alumni may need to be informed. Again, to be consistent, the internal communicator needs to work with relevant stakeholders to have suitable content for presentations, websites, portals and induction programs.

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