by Elizabeth Williams

It’s 70 minutes into a 90-minute employee town hall. The room is full, the room is hot, people are sweating, twitching, looking phones and the CFO is showing no sign of getting to the end of his many, many unreadable slides.

What’s worse, there are two more executives waiting to present their own unreadable slides and then, somehow, there needs to be a Q&A session at the end. Naturally, the CEO is thrilled. She got to talk for 45 minutes (20 minutes longer than scheduled), has no particular place to be when this is over and thinks the whole thing is going just fine. It’s not. This town hall sucks.

Sadly, this is also playing out in virtual form just as much as it did in the physical world.

There are nine reasons I can think of that lead us to these horrible meetings, but the underlying cause is that town halls are generally focused on what the executive team wants and not what employees need.

Reason #1 Denial of suckiness

Even the worst town hall can feel like a victory if all you want to do is barf information all over the place and catch the next flight home. For years, I travelled with executives who, after boring the butts off thousands of employees in multiple cities, proclaimed the whole thing a success simply because everyone survived and we could tick the whole engagement thing off the to do list for another quarter. This has to do with not really having clear goals for the meetings, beyond getting through them in one piece. When the town hall is the end in itself, it’s hard to accept that it might not be a very nice experience for the people in the room.

Reason #2 Too much content

Executives have a lot of things inside their brains. They know a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff and there is a natural tendency to want to share all of that knowing with employees. This is how we end up with spreadsheets cut and pasted into slides, 17 slides explaining how the sales team is being restructured and a really funny six-minute video everyone’s gonna just love as an ice breaker. The problem here is not that we don’t have enough time but that we aren’t having good conversations about what we want employees to do as a result of the information and then figuring out the most efficient way of giving that direction to them.

Reason #3 Too many speakers

For communicators, this one is a Sisyphean reality. We sketch out a lovely agenda, with plenty of time for a couple of speakers and a dozen slides, followed by a terrific interactive discussion at the end. But then another executive wants in on the action (since we’re getting everyone together anyway…), and another needs to weigh in if that first one is talking, and before we know it, we have half the executive team wanting their little moment in the spotlight. Bloated agendas mean too much information and too little meaning crammed into a tiny bit of time. The issue here is that we are confusing town hall meetings with update meetings.

Reason #4 Terrible delivery

How many of your executives are great presenters? I don’t mean they can stand up and read a few slides and crack a joke; I mean, they can hold the attention of the room even without a slide on a screen. They can use their voice, and their body language to punctuate meaning and tell great stories, even on a video call. I thought so. Most executives are, at best, competent deliverers of slides, but a few are actually pretty bad at it and some are secretly scared sh*tless and won’t admit it. Add to that, crowded slides, poor sound quality, bad lighting, bloated agendas and too many speakers and it’s no wonder town halls suck. I don’t think the problem here is so much a lack of skill, though that needs to be addressed, but a focus on the speakers’ experience rather than on the audience’s experience.

Reason #5 Disrespecting employees’ time

For executives, speaking at town hall meetings is in their job description. How many employees have this in their job descriptions? “Attend two-hour quarterly town hall meeting that requires paying the babysitter for an extra hour, driving 30 minutes out of your way, shifting your client meetings, missing 25 percent of your work day and still being accountable for your objectives that day.” And then we have the nerve to deliver a boring experience in an uncomfortable hotel meeting room with bad slides, too much content and no chance to ask questions. How’s that engagement score?

Reason #6 Holding them for all the wrong reasons

We have this idea that town hall meetings are for updating employees on what is happening in the business. I propose that updating employees about what is going on is the job of front-line managers and can be dealt with in the usual way with team meetings. If executives really feel the need to share an update, a quick video or a webinar or an email is a much more efficient way to pull that off.

Now, if we want is to help employees understand the vision that underpins the updates, and if we want to help them tie their work to the broader shared purpose and meaning of the organization then a town hall is a fine place to do that. I think Fearless Communicators need to start pushing back a little on why we have these meetings to begin with and then try to either change the purpose or change the format.

Reason #7 No reflection

I can’t remember the last decent debrief I sat through on an employee town hall. Sure, we look at the feedback survey, but do we really consider the bigger questions around  audience experience, value for time and money, execution effectiveness? Basically, unless there is some horrific technology or logistics issue, there is almost no reflection about what town halls should be like and should be for.

Reason #8 No listening

Executives will tell you that the whole point of going on the road is to get out there and meet the rank and file — really connect with the workforce. That’s a laudable goal, but the reality is that if your town hall is 90 percent executive talking and a sad Q&A with prepared questions then is anyone actually listening? No. No they are not. A good town hall should be at least fifty percent listening, with an acknowledgement that someone will ask a difficult or unpleasant question.

Reason #9 Lousy metrics

Let me guess, the last slide in your bloated, unreadable deck says: “Your feedback is important. Please be sure you fill out the survey” And let me guess what you’re asking in the survey: you want to know how much of the information was new, how much was relevant and was there anything you could do to improve future meetings. Am I close? What most organizations don’t ask is stuff like: Do you understand our vision for this year? Do you know how your role contributes to our overall goals? Are you able to articulate our organization’s purpose? Was this meeting a valuable use of your time? Until we stop measuring the output of slides and bums in seats and start asking about outcomes, we’re pretty much doomed to have sucky town halls.

Check out our podcast exploring all of this in more detail, and be sure you download our Tips for Town Hall Awesomeness.