For the Best Town Hall Ever, Science Says Do These 5 Things

For the Best Town Hall Ever, Science Says Do These 5 Things
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Employee town halls are such a valuable internal communication channel that it's a shame when these meetings are boring, irrelevant and uninspiring.

That's why I so frequently write about why to improve town halls--and why I often offer suggestions about how to do so.

In case you need another reason to take a new approach to town halls, consider this: The traditional way to put together these meetings--a series of long, fact-filled presentations --doesn't take into account how people's brains operate.

In his book Brain Rules, John Medina explains the science behind the brain and how to use this science to improve aspects of work, school and your personal life.

Based on concepts in the book, here are five practical ways to improve your next town hall meeting:

1. Limit each topic/segment to 10 minutes. Researchers have proven that after 10 minutes into even the most interesting presentation, people start zoning out. Writes Medina, "The brain seems to be making choices according to some stubborn timing pattern, undoubtedly influenced by both culture and gene."

So an easy change is to boil each topic down to just 10 minutes.

But what if you want to cover a topic in depth? Then you need to structure your content to create a natural break and shift gears after the 10-minute mark. (See #4.)

2. Emphasize meaning, not details. You know all those PowerPoint slides you prepare for the town hall--with data about finances, initiatives and a host of other topics? That information is just white noise, according to brain science. "If we don't know the gist--the meaning--of information, we are unlikely to pay attention to its details," writes Medina. The brain selects meaning-laden information for further processing and leaves the rest alone."

The solution, of course, is to ditch the data and emphasize meaning. "If you are trying to drive information into someone else's brain, make sure they understand exactly what it means," advises Medina. To do so:

  • Explain the context behind the concept you're trying to convey.
  • Tell the story of how you got to where you are today. "First, we realized we needed to change this process. Then we studied different options. We chose the one that best meets our needs, and since then, we've been making adaptations, so it fits the way we do business."
  • Speak in plain language. I'm in the habit of asking experts to explain the thing the way they would to their mom, or their old school friend (the one who didn't get his Ph.D.) or his seventh grader. These people are all smart, but they're not steeped in the technology or the processes or the lingo.
  • Share the "why." Okay, you're doing this great thing. Why is it important? How does it fit into what's happening in the marketplace? Or society? Or relate to the company's priorities?
  • Relate this to something else we're all familiar with. That's called a "metaphor" and I know it doesn't come naturally to a lot of people. But it's a skill you can develop by focusing on the elements of your thing and thinking about how it's similar to ordinary experiences. How is process improvement like cleaning a closet, for instance? Or innovation like cooking?
  • Never use a number unless you compare it to something else. The premise is that a fact just hanging out there gives the brain nothing to hold onto. But create a comparison and people can make connections. For example: "Our profits are just one-quarter of what we made last year."

3. Use real-world examples. Another way to create meaning, advises Medina, is to use "relevant real-world examples, thus peppering main learning points with meaningful experiences."

Medina cites an experiment in which students read a 32-paragraph paper about a fictitious foreign country. The greater the number of examples in the paragraph, the more likely the students were to remember the information. "Examples work because they take advantage of the brain's natural predilection for pattern matching," Medina writes. "Information is more readily processed if it can be immediately associated with information already present in the brain. Providing examples make the information more elaborative, more complex, better encoded, and therefore better learned."

4. Appeal to emotion. Research proves that emotions get our attention. Medina writes, "Emotionally charged events are better remembered--for longer, and with more accuracy--than neutral events. When your brain detects an emotionally charged event, your amygdala (a part of your brain that helps created and maintain emotions), releases the chemical dopamine into your system. Dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing. You can think of it like a Post-It notes that reads, 'Remember this!'"

In Medina's lectures, he uses a technique he calls a "hook," which sends his audience a "relevant emotional charge." The most successful hooks:

  • Trigger an emotion. "Fear, laughter, happiness, nostalgia, incredulity--the entire emotional palette can be stimulated, and all work well," Medina advises. "I employ survival issues here, describing a threatening event . . . or something triggering pattern matching. Narratives can be especially strong, especially if they are crisp and to the point."
  • Are relevant. Hooks can't just be any anecdote. You can simply crack a joke or deliver some irrelevant story--you need to relate your emotional moment to the content you're conveying.
  • Bridge content segments. The hook can go at the end of the 10-minute segment, looking backward and summarizing the material. Or it can go at the beginning of a module to anticipate some aspect of content.

5. Get employees talking. "A great deal of research shows that thinking or talking about an event immediately after it has occurred enhances memory for that event," writes Medina. "This is called elaborative rehearsal, and it's the type of repetition most effective for the most robust retrieval" of information.

In other words, to ensure that employees remember what was covered in the town hall, give them an opportunity to talk about. For example, if one of the key topics is your organization's efforts to build your customer base, ask employees a question, "How can we attract more customers?", and ask them to break out into small groups to generate ideas. They'll remember the exercise, the ideas and the concept.

Yep, these five improvements are a lot to absorb. But just take one of these suggestions and apply it. You'll see how effective your town hall can be.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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