As a business leader, getting called into a meeting feels like going to the principal’s office.
Town hall meetings can be a great way to flip the script. Instead of putting individual team members on the spot, a CEO or an elected official feels the pressure. Employees or members of the public can ask questions and (hopefully) get honest answers right then and there.
Town hall meetings can foster inclusion and transparency in a company or organization, and they can be a good way to deliver big news or share information that isn’t suitable for an email or a phone call.
Let’s take a look at several different town hall meeting formats, as well as how to make virtual town hall meetings run more smoothly.
What is a town hall meeting?
Before you get too excited, it’s worth keeping in mind that you shouldn’t expect to get anything done at a town hall meeting. In fact, think of town hall meetings as having a big “for informational purposes only” label on them.
Town hall meetings are a place to announce new initiatives, answer questions, and follow up with any concerns participants have.
Town hall events also shouldn’t be confused with city council meetings, at which the actual business of governing takes place!
Why should you have a town hall meeting?
If there’s a risk that your CEO could get put on the spot, why hold a company town hall meeting in the first place? Why not just hold a closed-door meeting instead? There are a few reasons why scheduling a town hall meeting may be worth it:
First, town hall meetings can improve company culture by providing a forum for honest discussion about workplace policies.
Plus, when the leadership of your team sits down to answer questions, it makes them seem more down-to-earth and relatable.
Lastly, transparency goes both ways: If employees are upset about an issue, it’s better for them to be open about it than to stage a hostile takeover.
Can you ever be sure all of your team members have read the company handbook and are up to date on company-wide announcements?
By having a town hall meeting with all hands on deck, you can ensure that everyone’s on the same page about company values and initiatives.
Take the opportunity to go over any major changes to company policies and recap the latest board meeting or leadership decisions.
Executive sessions and closed-door meetings have their place, but town hall meetings put a little bit of power back into the hands of everyday employees.
This is especially true in large (and remote) organizations where employees and the leadership team don’t have the opportunity to run into each other around the water cooler to chat about the latest season of “Never Have I Ever.”
Types of town hall meetings
We probably all saw our fair share of town hall meetings during the latest national election cycle, as politicians competed to drum up local support (and get compelling sound bytes to share on social media).
But not every town hall meeting is a made-for-TV event. Here are the two most common types of town hall meetings you’ll encounter:
Political town halls
Most political town halls take place at the local level, with elected officials inviting their constituents or members of the public to a Q&A session or discussion.
The Town Hall Project describes several different types of town hall meetings, including an “empty chair” town hall, in which constituents discuss issues without the politician present, and an “office hours” town hall featuring members of the politician’s staff.
Some town hall events are ticketed fundraisers or part of election campaigns, while others are a discussion between multiple candidates. These types of fundraisers usually have a moderator who may pick out key questions in advance.
Political town halls are increasingly virtual, which may make them more accessible to people who don’t have time to head down to the city hall on Main Street.
Company town hall
Company town halls are a totally different beast. Also called “all-hands meetings,” they usually take place when the CEO has something major to announce and they want to deliver the news face-to-face.
Maybe it’s a human resources policy that’s going to raise a lot of questions, or maybe it’s a big announcement like the construction of a new athletics facility.
You can schedule a company town hall at a corporate retreat, at the annual meeting, or any other occasion when all hands are on deck.
How are town meetings held?
Company town hall meetings can take place in the office, over Zoom, or on another video conferencing platform.
The important thing is that they’re live and allow for some level of participation. If the CEO wants to start things off with a recorded video message, that’s fine – but they should follow up with a real-time Q&A session to answer employees’ FAQs.
Ideally, the moderator will send an agenda in advance so participants know what to expect and how long the meeting will last.
What gets discussed at a town hall meeting?
Just because a town hall meeting is less structured than a board meeting doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all. Yes, you can let your employees voice their concerns about the lunch menu if that’s the most pressing item on the agenda.
But your moderator can also ensure that participants stay on topic and only ask questions that are relevant to the discussion at hand.
Common agenda items at a corporate town hall meeting include workplace policies, employee benefits, retirement plans, and more.
Depending on how much control you want over the town hall meeting, you can ask participants to send questions before the meeting. That way, you can vet them and make sure no one asks your CEO about their embarrassing appearance on SNL.
On the other hand, you can allow participants to submit questions anonymously, which may make them more comfortable bringing up awkward subjects, like why Mark gets to go on so many all-expense paid business trips to Hawaii.
How to run a smooth virtual town hall meeting
Sometimes, holding an in-person town hall meeting just isn’t practical. Maybe your team members are spread out around the country and can’t easily meet up in person.
Fortunately, a virtual town hall meeting is the next best thing. If you’re the type of person who likes to attend meetings from your couch, it may even be the better option!
Here are a few tips for running a successful virtual meeting:
Check your time zone. Unless Doc Brown is the moderator, your meeting will likely take place in the not-so-distant future.
Make sure your meeting is at a time when the majority of your team members can attend, and specify the timezone in your meeting invite.
Choose the right platform. If this is your first time running a virtual meeting, do a test run so you don’t encounter any Zoom error messages on the day of the event.
If you need to, upgrade to a paid account to avoid running into capacity limits, and set up a breakout room where participants can have small-group conversations.
Take good notes. It’s a good idea to have a written transcript of your town hall meeting, even if you’re planning on making a video or audio recording.
Transcribing your meeting and posting it in a public place can make it more accessible for participants who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speak English as a second language.
Let Anchor AI take notes at your virtual town hall meeting
Town hall meetings are a great opportunity to give everyday team members a chance to ask questions or respond to announcements from the leadership of your organization.
You can even hold them virtually if your team can’t get together in person. But they can also get a little hectic, so having a plan for taking notes is key!
Use a tool like Anchor AI to take notes, so no one on your team has to. It’s easier to search through a written transcript of the meeting when everything is time-stamped and action items are clearly identified.
Plus, you can send a recap of the meeting in your next company-wide email and clear up any miscommunication or confusion.