When you see a meeting pop up on your calendar, what are your first thoughts?
Is it the dreaded, “meeting to talk about having another meeting,” or will it be a chance to make impactful final decisions? With remote work the norm right now, will there be unexpected interruptions? We all bring our human(ity) to work.
Some of our colleagues say that we make meetings feel like a family reunion - the highest compliment! We love creating impactful meetings, and we know that meetings are not always created with intention.
Think of it like this: meetings are a federal employee’s kitchen, and we are the chefs. Depending on the ingredients, preparation, and final execution, the meeting experience can have perfectly crisp edges, or flop into an undercooked, messy pile. Each of us can influence the meeting experience and how good — or bad — it tastes.
This month, we’re focusing on large group meetings: divisional Town Halls or office-wide gatherings. We recently organized a Town Hall for our division, the Technology Transformation Services (TTS) at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), and we’re sharing insights on our successes and takeaways from that event, and others that we have facilitated.
5 Ingredients for a Delightful Town Hall Experience
- Make a plan and prepare your kitchen
High-impact meetings require planning and preparation. Each minute of a large group meeting is a big investment. To put it into context: if you are gathering 40 employees for a one-hour meeting, then that time is the equivalent of an entire work week. This is valuable time and every moment counts.
Write out the goals for each section of the agenda. Give each part a clear time block — you want to think through each moment.
Avoid the dreaded, “we do this activity because we’ve always done it” by clarifying the “why” behind everything on your agenda. This sharpens the meeting content and helps your employees know what they’ll gain by attending. You can only serve big groups well if you’ve planned for it ahead of time—just like in your kitchen.
- Create your team: select a chef, a sous chef, and a few station chefs
Large meetings need a head chef (moderator) to guide the way. This person introduces and transitions between speakers, watches the clock, encourages participation (see #3 below), and positively reacts to the unexpected; a must-have skill.
A well-seasoned meeting also has a buzzing “kitchen” behind the scenes. The moderator needs at least one “sous chef” to respond to employee questions and alert the moderator of any technical issues.
We’ve both learned from experience that you can’t do it all alone: when we co-facilitated the Town Hall, we leaned on the support of several other teammates as station chefs to moderate a communications backchannel and the videoconferencing chatbox. We also recommend having a notetaker assemble meeting insights into a summary that is distributed office-wide afterward.
Doing a practice run is worth the time investment. It’s better to undercook a dish in front of friends, rather than 500 people. At minimum, have a short meeting to talk through the agenda with all presenters and chefs, so everyone knows their role and the overall meeting flow.
- Plan interactive segments: add the right spices
A defining feature of traditional large meetings is “one to many” communication: a room of passive listeners with a handful of active speakers.
Break out of that mold: incorporate shorter, interactive segments to capture and keep your audience’s attention. Keep executive or senior leadership updates short. If there are many senior leader updates to share, consider having multiple sections sprinkled throughout the agenda, with different presenters; this adds “spices” throughout in order to enhance the flavors.
Every video conferencing software offers the ability to interact with your audience. Use the chat box to gather real-time feedback and conduct informal polls throughout the meeting. If you leverage polling to gather employee input, put the data to work in shaping future engagements.
Some conferencing platforms offer breakout rooms, which provide an excellent option for “get to know your colleagues” sessions or small group brainstorming.
Include short educational or learning sessions in the agenda. For example, the TTS Diversity Guild (one of our working groups) has done guest presentations at TTS team meetings to share information about inclusion topics, provide updates about current initiatives, and encourage colleagues to get involved.
Lastly, consider closing the meeting with an action item or an open question that brings the whole “meal” together and leaves people feeling satisfied and included. Open your next Town Hall with insights from the action item or question from the previous Town Hall. For example, we encouraged our colleagues to reach out and tell someone why they appreciate them.
- Use audio and visual cues for a richer sensory experience
In a kitchen, you have a robust sensory experience: tastes, smells, sights, and sounds. In a virtual environment, you’ll rely on sight and sound to convey meaning.
In our Town Hall, we used a meditation bell to start the meeting and to alert speakers that they were reaching the end of their timeblock. The bell made transitions smoother and was more enjoyable than a moderator interjecting with, “Two-minute warning!” In our post-meeting survey, many colleagues commented on how much they enjoyed the bells—and want to hear them again at future meetings.
The visual elements of your meeting can also increase engagement. A quick internet search will reveal an abundance of “recipes” on how to create compelling slides. Our core advice is to keep them simple; a “wall of text” distracts employees from the main message.
Plus, slides are only one method for conveying visual information. Is there a new initiative that can be shown through a live demonstration? Can a short leadership message be effectively conveyed by the speaker simply turning their video camera on? A smart chef leverages precooked elements when it makes sense—use pre-recorded videos as needed.
- Infuse with kudos and “cuteness”
A staple of TTS large group meetings is sharing “pets, children, and other cuteness.” Staff turn on their video cameras (if they weren’t already on) and show off their pets, children, or something else they enjoy. Photos can be shown to the camera, too. The icing on the cake: if you wait until the end of the meeting to reveal these, people will stay until the end!
We also encourage gratitude and reflection. Kudos are another staple of our meetings: we set aside a timeblock for teammates to thank each other, in their own words. The moderator can gather names ahead of time and call on each person to unmute. They can also read off kudos for anyone who can’t attend or would prefer not to unmute.
We hope you’ll stir together our five ingredients and create the dish that best serves your audience. Stay tuned for the next piece, focused on small team meetings.