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Last week, I wrote about the reasons why town hall meetings are often undemocratic. But they can also be powerful opportunities to build engagement and a positive culture. I’ll share five simple ways to make town hall meetings more democratic and engaging, even without making any drastic changes to the program or hiring a professional facilitator (although it's certainly recommended ;-)
Limit presentations to a minimum. There is no surer way to suck energy out of a meeting than kicking off with a lengthy presentation (or worse, multiple presentations). If the objective is to convey information, consider circulating it in advance, or distributing a handout at the start of the meeting and giving everyone 5 minutes of uninterrupted silence to read the handout. The actual presentation should focus on the things that are difficult to express on paper—for example, to share a vision, explain the background, or clarify contentious issues.
Instead of a free-for-all Q&A, break up participants into small groups to come up with questions. Have participants form a triad of 3 people (with whoever is sitting next to them) and ask them to come up with one “Burning Question” for the group. Go around the room and ask each group to share their question. If it is a very large group (over 50 people), have them write their question on note cards and collect the questions. This way, questions are vetted within the groups first, so the range of questions that get asked are broader and less likely to be dominated by a few loud voices.
Give people a chance to vent their feelings, while also doing a reality check. For example, ask: “I’d like to get a sense of how we’re feeling about this new policy. Would anyone be willing to share their reactions?” After a few people have spoken, follow up with a reality check to gauge if the reaction is widely shared or not: “Did you have the same reaction about the policy? Why or why not? Let’s hear from someone who hasn’t spoken yet.” Often, more nuanced reactions will emerge once more people have had a chance to speak.
Asking for written questions and comments levels the playing field. Ask participants to write comments and questions on color-coded cards (e.g., yellow for comments, green for questions). Collect all responses and post them on the wall. As much as possible, acknowledge all comments and questions by reading them out loud. Or, ask several people from the audience to assist in sorting and categorizing the cards and giving a summary of the overlaps and trends. Allow some time for a “gallery walk”, so that participants can read others’ cards. Most crucially, clarify how the management will follow through with the information.
Instead of asking, “Does anybody have any questions?”, be intentional about the kinds of questions you are looking for. Take a three-tiered approach: start by asking for questions about the information—what the group didn’t understand or need clarification on. Then, ask for their initial reactions and feelings—what they liked/disliked. And finally, ask for evaluative questions—similar/different, better/worse, and broader implications. (Adapted from the Focused Conversations method, Technology of Participation) Asking for questions in stages can help deepen the level of understanding and insight.
If you are willing to put in a little more planning, there are many methods out there for engaging hundreds of people in conversation—World Café and Liberating Structures are two of my favorites. There is no good reason to rely on the same “Presentation followed by Q&A” format! But, in the meantime, I hope you can try a few of the tips I outlined above, to ensure that everyone has a voice, and that the conversation can develop into more than a series of monologues.