book cover

Managing Town Hall meetings so that everyone benefits (and relatively few are miserable)

This is a selection from the new book, Crowdsourcing Wisdom: a Guide to Doing Public Meetings that Actually Make Your Community Better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come). Learn more and get the book for yourself at Thanks.

As I said in the last chapter, I don’t think town hall-type meetings are effective because they’re so easily dominated by a few loud voices.  But there are ways to improve the experience and the value of the meeting — for both you and for the people who choose to attend.

Let’s walk through a few of the specific tactics I have used for making these meetings more meaningful and more productive:

Have a pre-meeting workshop where you use Crowdfunding Wisdom techniques to build the base of information that you will use during the formal meeting. Just because the rules specify that you have to do a formal meeting doesn’t mean that’s the only type of meeting you can do.  A workshop done before the formal meeting can have all sorts of benefits – it can provide an understanding of the concerns and priorities of a larger group of people, it can give you a measuring stick to help gauge whether a single speaker is actually representing a majority or just speaking for himself.

It can allow you to understand and demonstrate whether speakers at the formal meeting are significantly different in age, gender, race etc. from the larger population, and it can place a confrontational speaker in the position of having to respond to the input of a body of people who may have come to a different conclusion – without those people having to be there in person.

On a particularly confrontational issues, the pre-workshop may also result in some proportion of formal meeting attendees who are better informed, have better grappled with the information, and may be more deeply invested in the outcome than they would have been if only the formal meeting were held.  It’s even possible that the pre-meeting workshop can defuse a speaker who would otherwise be domineering or confrontational, because she has had to think more deeply about the issue, and debate it with her peers, than she normally would when approaching that microphone.

An outside moderator isn’t a bad idea.  As the outsider, I have a lot of aces up my sleeve.  Since I don’t know any more than the broad outline of any previous confrontations, I can plead innocence.  As an outsider, I don’t have any explicit stake in the ground, and I probably don’t have any history with any individual or group who may be inclined to get confrontational.  Although of course anyone can in theory say anything, no one has any sound reason to accuse me of bias, as long as I treat everyone involved fairly.

Chances are, if I watch the crowd closely before we start (just like with Crowdsourcing Wisdom, it’s a good idea to try to build some understanding of the people you’re going to be working with), I may be able to get a sense of who the person with an agenda may be—especially if they stick in a group, which is often the case.

Many times, staff may feel the need to point out to me people who have given them heartburn in the past.  If I had the same history with those people that the city staff has, I’m sure it would be very hard to not fixate on them.

But since I don’t have that baggage, and since I am going to be careful to spread the chance to participate as widely through the whole audience as possible, I have a better chance of a more fair process, and less risk of specifically ignoring or focusing on one person or another based on some history they have had with the agency.

The other benefit of being an outside moderator is that I can take a strong leadership role, because I don’t have to worry about offending anyone.

After all, when this is over, I am going home, people.   If I had been in the city I live in, with people I knew in the audience, I would have found myself in a very different situation.

Never let go of the microphone.  I almost never take public questions via a stand mic or podium in the front of the room.  That seems to bring out the worse “Look At Me,” reflex in people – and as we discussed before, it scares the hell out of way more people than we probably realize.  Again, two consequences that completely undermine what we’re trying to do.

I almost always go at it Phil Donohue-style.  I wade as deep into the audience as the cords will let me. I either hold the mic for speakers, or I repeat their questions over the sound system.

In addition to giving me an additional measure of control over the situation (more on that in a minute), doing it this way provides three additional benefits:

  1. Having someone moving around the room means that people will pay more attention than if you simply stick behind a podium. If you want people to engage in the discussion, you need them to be paying attention.  It’s the same reason why teachers walk between the desks in a classroom – it creates a modest level of uncertainty and unpredictability, and that makes you more inclined to pay attention.
  1. If someone is rambling – either because they’re nervous, or because they’re trying to dominate the time, or they’re just not an organized public speaker – it’s a lot easier to manage that situation if you’re face to face. You can gently interrupt with a clarifying question, or rephrase the question (especially useful if someone is going off on a tack that isn’t within the meeting’s purpose and you need to pull it back in), or grab hold of the germ of their comment and flip it back out to the rest of the audience to comment.
  1. Sound systems can be a real pain. The mic’s too far away from the speaker, no one can hear them. The mic is too close, and it squeals.  The sound is fuzzy and the person’s accent is hard to make out.  The result of all of these: no one is happy with the experience.

You of all people are the most likely to know what you need to do to make the sound as good as possible for everyone.  At least, you will after the first five minutes.  So it makes sense for you to have as much direct control as possible.  And you can always use “sorry, the sound system is pretty touchy” as a reason why you’re hanging on to the mic.

Just because someone puts their hand up doesn’t mean you need to call on them.   We have this assumption from our days in school that the first one with the hand up is the one that should get to show off his or her knowledge.  But we all know that teachers select who they will call on, and after a while the kid who knows all the answers doesn’t get called on anymore.

Teachers don’t do that to be mean to the smart kids.  They do it for the good of the whole class: only calling on that person wouldn’t do the rest of the students much good.

We don’t want to ignore people if we can help it, but a forum whose purpose is to help us understand the cross-section of public opinion is not going to fill that purpose if we play by those elementary school rules.

It is critical to cover the meeting space – both in terms of taking questions from all over the room, but also taking questions from people of different ages and genders and ethnic groups and any other divisions that you can pick up on.   When I manage these kinds of meetings, I am constantly tracking the characteristics of the people I have already talked to versus the people who have their hands up.   If I simply stick in the corner where the most hands went up, I will both turn off the rest of the crowd and prevent us from getting a useful picture of the full range of public opinion.


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