How to build an agenda for a meeting.

Nobody wants to attend a meeting that’s boring, poorly-planned, or stressful. While we can’t guaranteea fool-proof way to organize a meeting that will never go off-the-rails, we can say that if you start with a good plan, you have better odds of a successful and focused meeting that your attendees will feel good about.

If you start with a good plan, you have better odds of a successful and focused meeting that your attendees will feel good about.

In the Harvard Business Review article, “How to Design an Agenda for an Effective Meeting,” Roger Schwarz, organizational psychologist, speaker, and leadership team consultant, explained how vital the agenda is:An effective agenda sets clear expectations for what needs to occur before and during a meeting. It helps team members prepare, allocates time wisely, quickly gets everyone on the same topic, and identifies when the discussion is complete. If problems still occur during the meeting, a well-designed agenda increases the team’s ability to effectively and quickly address them.”

If you want to start having better meetings at work, here are some of our top recommendations.

How to create a more effective meeting agenda.

Seven Ways to Create More Effective Agendas

1. Plan Early

Don’t leave the creation of your agenda to the day-of your meeting(or worse, hours before…). Ideally, a few days before the event, think about what needs to happen in your session so you can let the participants know what to expect and email them the plan ahead of time.

The article “7 Steps to The Perfect Meeting Agenda” puts it this way: “Sending [the agenda] in advanced ensures that attendees have ample time to prepare or read through any notes they will need before the meeting and raises flags if the objective doesn’t match their expectations.”

2. Identify Your Goal

This one seems like common sense, but it’s these small things that get missed in bad meetings. Make sure you can clearly articulate WHY you are having this meeting and WHAT you need to accomplish by the end. If you can’t answer these two questions, you probably can’t build a robust agenda. 

Take a few moments before plowing into your meeting plan and logistics to get clear on the big goal of your meeting and the objectives you need to meet by the end of it.

3. Time Box Everything

When some people plan meetings, they avoid hard timelines for their activities because they don’t want to seem like a drill sergeant. But, if you don’t set time boxes around your activities, you can bet that you won’t get to everything on your list. The big “talkers” in your group might hijack the meeting, and suddenly, nothing gets accomplished. 

Assign specific time frames for each activity, and don’t be afraid to stick to them closely. However, this doesn’t mean you’re inflexible. For example, if a meaningful conversation happens and takes up more time than expected, check-in with the group, acknowledge that you’re going over, and figure out where to shave-off time later in the agenda.

If you want to be really fancy, you can even use a tool like the Time Timer to keep your group on task. This bold clock makes it clear that this meeting is running efficiently!

4. Don’t Go it Alone

When you’re developing a meeting plan, especially for a meeting that’s two hours or more, you might want to call in help. Two heads are better than one. 

Find a partner who can help you build the agenda and meeting activities collaboratively. Or, take the first pass at the agenda and then share it with someone else for feedback or a sanity check.

5. Overestimate!

If we’ve learned anything in our time facilitating meetings of all kinds, it’s that everything takes longer than you think. Our recommendation is to pad your agenda with more time for everything. In other words, if you feel you can discuss something and come to a consensus in 5 minutes, you’re probably going to be stressed out when you’re still in the middle of it 20 min later. 

Double how much time you think each activity will take. Scale back your expectations of what you’ll accomplish in your meeting and take more time on each individual activity.

6. Don’t forget breaks (and food).

If you are planning a more extended meeting, be sure to build in ample time for breaks. It’s a bit like our recommendation to overestimate how long things take. Similarly, you probably need one or two more breaks than you might think. In a day-long meeting, give participants at least two quick breaks and lunch. People need decompression time and, of course, time to check their email or Slack messages.

Build these breaks into your plan at times when you think energy will be waning. Additionally, if your budget allows it, definitely bring in snacks, coffee, water, etc. to keep people from getting “hangry” and distracted.

7. Write it down

Of course, once you’ve gotten your agenda where you want it, you’ll need to put your schedule down in words. You could put it in an email or calendar invite through a few bullet points. You could also take a bit more time and use a template like these here to create a more detailed and professional looking agenda that outlines all the questions people might ask: Who will be there? What are our objectives? How long are we spending on each task? 

For quick and regular meetings, a beautiful or professional agenda might not be necessary. But, if you’re holding a more critical meeting like an off-site or team summit, you probably want to take more time to make your agenda look great. It sets the tone for the importance of the event.

Need help designing your next big meeting?

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