How to Create a Meeting Agenda You'll Actually Use

Last Updated Mar 1, 2011 2:10 PM EST

You know all the complaints about meetings, particularly online. All together now... too long, off topic, boring, no leadership... the list is endless. Here's the thing: it's largely avoidable, and we know it. The one factor in almost all successful meetings is a good agenda. Here are some guidelines for creating an agenda that not only works--there's a pretty good chance you'll actually use it.

A good agenda is not brain surgery, so why don't we do use them more often? Usually it's because it takes time to create and send them and we're always in a rush. By creating a template, either online or in your email platform, you can pause, breathe, fill in the blanks, and give you and your team a fighting chance at success (or at least lessening the pain and misery).

What goes into a good agenda? It should answer the questions your attendees need to know in order to make the best use of your time together:

Meeting logistics: The agenda should be the one place people know to reference for all the answers to their questions. Don't assume because you use the same information all the time that they'll automatically know it.
  • What time it's going to start (and finish). If your system allows you to easily enter this into people's calendars, take advantage of that and reduce the possible excuses for arriving late and leaving early.
  • How will you meet? If it's a web meeting, include ALL relevant information with live links (url for the meeting, audio information). Again, eliminate any possible questions by providing the information up front. (Remember, in a template you can just leave the information that doesn't change and update the stuff that does instead of reinventing the wheel every time).
  • Online meetings should contain a notice to log on a few minutes early, and how to test their system for compatibility. Most web platforms build this in to their invitations automatically. Insist people actually do it.
Purpose of the meeting with desired outcomes: People cannot be prepared to participate fully if they don't know what's going to be covered. They'll also be less paranoid, which can only be a good thing. If they are expected to make a decision they should know that so they're in the right frame of mind. If it's a brainstorming session, they need to know they'll be called on for input. Tell them what's on the table--and what's not on the agenda so don't bother bringing it up-- if you want them to comply.

Attendees and their roles: Who is going to be on the meeting? What will they be doing? Give people fair notice and then hold them accountable. Include email addresses, if it's appropriate, so that people can provide input or answer questions in advance of the session. This will save time spent on minor issues.

What they need to read/prepare/do in advance and how to find and share that information: This is an area where meeting leaders are guilty of laziness and it bites them in terms of getting meetings started well and wasting too much time. Don't wait til the meeting starts to email that spreadsheet- and don't baby people who email you ten minutes before the meeting starts asking for it (because they either deleted it or saved it somewhere and can't remember where). Have live links to all documents on the shared file site or intranet and insist people get those documents for themselves. Check to make sure they have them before the meeting starts so you don't kill momentum by waiting til people look for them.

If this all seems too simple, ask yourself what the most common meeting problems are. People arriving late, not knowing (or caring) what the meeting is designed to achieve, not being prepared to get down to business, having the wrong people in the meeting to achieve your outcomes, and not being held accountable for meeting success.

Eliminating the variables is important. So's holding people accountable. The best way to do that is to slow down, use a tool like this, and make it part of every meeting so that it's a seamless part of your leadership process.

Read more: photo by flickr user Lumaxart CC 2.0
  • Wayne Turmel

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