How to Not Hold a Town Hall Meeting

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012


Last night’s Presidential Town Hall Debate offers a fine lesson for business leaders on how to not conduct a town hall meeting.

There are two purposes for a town hall meeting: 1. To connect with the audience personally and demonstrate that you are a real person who listens and can relate to them, and 2. To answer their questions clearly and directly.

Sadly, both candidates in the Presidential Town Hall Debate failed on both counts.

This was due, in part, to the structure. When televised presidential debates began, they were open forums. Questions came from the audience. No one knew what they were going to ask. And audience members could ask follow-up questions. Sure, there were some whack-a-doodle questions, but it was real. Over the years, candidates wanted to make these forums more predictable and safer for themselves. They accomplished that, but sapped much of the vibrancy from a potentially rich forum.

Business leaders can learn what to do by avoiding some of the structure and style of last night’s debate.

1. Don’t edit the questions. Last night, all questions had to be submitted prior to the debate and then the moderator got to choose which would be asked. This eliminated any rogue questions that could embarrass or confound. But, more important, it didn’t allow subsequent questions to build on what a candidate just said. In real dialogue, a rich conversation takes on a life of its own.

2. Allow follow-up questions. (They were forbidden last night.) Follow-up questions allow people to say, “You didn’t answer my question.” Or, “I’m not clear about the second point you made.” Without follow-up questions, it allows candidates and business leaders to lightly touch on a response then talk for the next few minutes (or longer) on some other vaguely related point they wanted to make. That is insulting and can diminish people’s trust in you.

3. Allow yourself to be human. Humor is OK. Self-deprecating humor is even better. Short personal stories that show you get what the person is saying, can count for a lot. Even if people don’t like your answer, they are more likely to keep listening simply because they believe you “get” them. And, this is a tough one for presidential candidates, allow yourself to look at your adversary as a human who has the same right as you to be on that stage. When we ignore or insult the other person on the stage, it may feel good to our fervent supporters, but make others see us as insensitive.

4. Don’t step all over your moderator. Last night’s debate had moments where both candidates and the moderators were all talking over top of each other. If you use a moderator and have some established guidelines for the town hall meeting — stick with the rules you agreed to. You look petty when you fail to follow your own rules. Last night, the moderator was female. Already, I heard a news commentator talk about the gender implications of two men of a certain age disregarding and interrupting a female moderator.

5. Answer questions directly. If someone asks, “Will this change involve downsizing?” Don’t give the background history of what prompted this change, or a vision for the future once the crisis passes. Just answer the question. Period. And then once the person indicates that he or she understands what you just said, then give whatever supporting information you think will help people understand the rationale and so forth.

6. A bonus point which has nothing to do with the debate, but can show up in corporate town hall meetings. Leave the PowerPoint slides at home. Nothing says you don’t really want any conversation, than dimming the lights and showing that first slide.

I don’t expect candidates to listen to this advice, but perhaps business leaders who truly want to connect with their audiences and candidly answer questions might consider these tips.

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