The concept of a town hall meeting is nothing new. Ancient civilizations meeting in the town square offered some early iterations of this group meeting. When I worked with a public school district, we often held public meetings to provide taxpayers and parents important updates, and to offer a platform to collect feedback and input. Especially when working on controversial issues (like school levies), maintaining order, without stifling dialogue, can be a challenge.
Fast-forward to today’s ultra-connected society, where Twitter, UStream, LiveFyre and other online platforms provide an opportunity for organizations to host virtual townhall-style meetings. Whether you’re hosting a traditional meeting or incorporating online tools, there are some consistencies that will lead to a more effective, productive use of everyone’s time.
HOW TO: Host an Effective Town Hall Meeting
Before the Meeting
1. Create — and stick to — an agenda.
2. Identify a strong moderator. This person needs to have a good grasp of the subject matter, and demonstrate the ability to keep the conversation on topic.
3. Hold a pre-meeting with the moderator and other key participants/panelists to discuss potential questions or problems and how to most effectively respond. Also use this time to make sure everyone is comfortable with whatever technology is being used.
4. Encourage attendees to submit questions ahead of time. For example, create a place on your website where people can submit topics for discussion.
5. If the goal of the meeting is to collect feedback and input, create a list of questions that will spark dialogue.
During the Meeting
1. Welcome attendees and thank them for participating.
2. Introduce the moderator, as well as other representatives who will be responding to questions.
3. Make the agenda available to everyone — either show it on a screen for an “in person” meeting, or for virtual meetings, provide a link.
4. Explain the main purpose for the gathering.
5. Be clear about the length of the meeting. (Have a pre-determined end time.)
6. If you noticed common themes among the questions submitted in advance, open the meeting by responding to those first.
7. As needed, remind people of the ground rules. Make sure as many people as possible have the opportunity to have their voice heard. Don’t let a “vocal minority” dominate the conversation.
8. Pay attention to answers and ask probing follow-up questions to continue the conversation.
9. If a topic requires a more in-depth discussion — particularly if it only impacts a small group of people — offer to take it offline to avoid dominating the discussion.
10. Take detailed notes about issues that require follow up.
After the Meeting
1. Assign follow-up responsibilities and deadlines to make sure nothing slips through the cracks.
2. Create a public wiki or some other tool for people to continue asking questions and providing feedback.
3. Thank participants for joining in the conversation. Even better if this can be done one-to-one via email or direct message, for example.
4. Distribute a post-event survey to respondents to determine what worked well and how future townhall meetings can be improved.
5. Communicate when ideas from the meeting are implemented. People need to know that you really listened and are responding.
Let’s think of this as a starter list. What other suggestions would you offer?