Are meeting agendas widely-used where you work? If so, you’re one of the lucky ones. According to online scheduling software Doodle, poorly organized meetings cost the North American economy approximately $399.01 billion USD per year.
If you’ve ever sat through a multi-hour meeting with no agenda, no direction, and no end in sight, you can understand why. Unproductive meetings waste everybody’s time, monopolizing resources that could be better spent elsewhere.
With the average worker spending an estimated 22 years of their 45-year career in meetings, a simple meeting agenda can significantly improve the quality and output of these meetings — or even cut down on the number and length of meetings overall.
To help you make sure you’re running efficient, purposeful meetings, we’ve put together a how-to guide for creating effective meeting agendas. We’ve also included some easy-to-use templates that will have all attendees enthusiastically clicking that ‘Attending’ button.
How to build an effective meeting agenda
Step 1: Get started ahead of time
The first thing you need to consider when creating your meeting agenda? Timing.
If you know you have to schedule a meeting for a week from today, it’s best to get started on creating the agenda as soon as possible. This ensures that there is enough time to circulate the agenda beforehand, so that attendees can come prepared with questions and their own relevant contributions.
When you prepare the agenda ahead of time, you might also occasionally find that the meeting isn’t necessary at all. Think about the number of attendees you’re expecting, and the collective hours of work the meeting will take up. Is there a better way to achieve your goal?
Many meetings have as a purpose to share information or insights. These tend to have one person speaking or presenting to a group, and can often be equally, if not more effective as an email, Slack discussion, or shared Google Doc. If a group discussion is not necessary or expected, consider whether the meeting needs to happen in the first place.
Step 2: Outline key objectives and goals
The first, and possibly most important part of any meeting agenda, is the key objective. Every meeting needs a defined purpose so that attendees know exactly what they are there to achieve. How often have you gone into a meeting with only a vague idea of the general topic, instead of the intended outcome?
When everyone knows the end goal, it’s much easier to stay focused and on-topic. Every question, action, discussion — everything on the agenda — should lead to this core objective. If it doesn’t, it can be shelved for later conversations or one-on-one meetings if necessary.
Step 3: Decide on an agenda format
Will your meeting be a project kickoff or a general brainstorm session? Are you looking to facilitate a discussion with two other people, or run a project retrospective with eight?
You’ll want to think about the general tone and purpose of the meeting, and decide whether it’s better suited to an informal or formal agenda.
An informal agenda — usually a simple outline of items to discuss — is a good place to start. Having the key talking points with time allocations is usually enough for your team members. It allows them to know at a high-level whether the meeting is relevant to them and what to prepare. Informal agendas are also good for one-on-ones, where you don’t want to structure the conversation too much.
A formal agenda, including a much more detailed breakdown of each item or discussion, is preferred when the meeting extends beyond your team. This agenda might include:
- Introductions or a speaker list
- Housekeeping items, like deciding who will take notes
- A link to a presentation or other key information
- Background documents and pre-work
Use a formal agenda for meetings involving executives such as board meetings, town halls, or business reviews with company stakeholders.
Step 4: Summarize discussion points
With the meeting’s goal and format in mind, outline the main topics of discussion that will make up the meeting. This is the ‘meat’ of the meeting, so it’s important to present items clearly and carefully.
Here are some tips for listing agenda items and discussion points:
- Write each list item as a question. Instead of just writing ‘Annual General Meeting’ as a discussion item, write ‘Where should we host this year’s Annual General Meeting?’ This helps narrow down what is actually being discussed (as the topic ‘Annual General Meeting’ could include a wide variety of things). The more detail you can provide, the better-prepared everyone will be.
- Assign an attendee for each agenda item. For example, if Jane from the data department is presenting some recent research findings, list her name next to the line item. Even if the person leading the item is you (as the host), list your name so no one is caught off guard.
- Specify an amount of time for each list item. We’ve all been in meetings that lasted twice as long as they should have. Save your attendees (and yourself) from these painful situations by designating a set amount of time for each topic of discussion on your meeting agenda. This allows you to drive discussions forward during the actual meeting, since you’ve laid out the time restrictions in advance.
- Be clear about when participation is expected. If you’re going to need people’s participation or feedback, be explicit in highlighting that on your agenda. This allows them to start thinking about the topic in advance and come to the meeting with the right mindset. If people aren’t aware they’re going to be taking part, you may find them to be less engaged when you spring a question or request on them.
- Use the agenda as the basis for your meeting notes. Your note taker has a clear outline for what will be discussed and can essentially build their notes onto the agenda. This will also make it easier for your attendees to digest after the fact, as the notes will closely match what they experienced in the meeting.
Step 5: Leave room for action items
What good is a meeting if nothing comes from it? By designating a portion of your agenda to future action items, you emphasize that the meeting is goal-driven. As the meeting progresses, you and your team can actually fill in the blanks on the agenda with the action items as they arise. If there are 10 minutes left in the meeting and that section of the agenda is still blank, you’ll know you need to quickly take charge.
How to use a meeting agenda
So you’ve created your agenda, and now you’re wondering how to make it as effective as possible. Here are some tips for getting the most out of your newly-created meeting agenda.
Before the meeting
- Circulate the agenda in advance. Nobody likes going into a meeting unprepared. Save your attendees the anxiety, and boost the productivity of your meeting, by circulating your meeting agenda at least three days ahead of time. This gives all attendees the opportunity to review the agenda and prepare as needed.
- Ask for input or collaboration. You might think that this is just inviting chaos or confusion, but collaboration can be extremely beneficial to meeting prep. When you circulate your agenda, ask attendees for feedback. You might find that you hadn’t allocated enough time to a discussion, or that you hadn’t considered an important topic. If you have multiple presenters, they might help you develop an agenda that works in tandem with their content. Feedback can lead to a better agenda, and in turn a better meeting.
- Assign any pre-work. Maybe attendees need to read a certain document beforehand. Maybe they need to come to the brainstorm with three potential ideas prepared. Whatever your expectations, make sure the pre-work is clearly outlined alongside your agenda.
During the meeting
- Stick to the agenda items. It’s so easy for meetings to run off course, especially if there’s debate over a particular item. But an agenda is only valuable if you follow it. As the leader of the meeting, you need to enforce the agenda and ask people to take off-topic discussions offline. Creating a “parking lot” is one common way to table side topics for a later time and get back to the work at hand.
- Keep an eye on the time. As with the agenda items, it’s easy to get caught up in a heated discussion, and watch time slip away. Try to adhere to the designated time allotment you’ve assigned each discussion topic. This ensures that you keep the meeting as efficient as possible and don’t go over-time. It also forces participants to keep their comments edited and concise, because they know you’ll stop them if they don’t. Obviously, we’re not recommending you immediately cut-off any important discussions as soon as the clock strikes zero. In fact, you may decide to remove other items from the agenda and continue the conversation. The important thing is that the time is well-managed so that your meeting achieves its purpose before it ends.
- Fill in the action items. As mentioned above, fill in your agenda with the action items agreed upon during the meeting, so everyone is aligned on the next steps.
After the meeting
- Include your agenda in the follow-up email. This might seem a little bit counterintuitive, but including your meeting agenda alongside the meeting notes and action items helps attendees retain information. With the agenda in hand, they may have an easier time remembering what was discussed in the long-term — so they can better execute on those action items.
- Use the meeting agenda as a basis for follow-up meetings. If a follow-up meeting is required, your old meeting agenda can help inform the new one. What topics needed more time? What presenter didn’t stick to the schedule? Use these insights to strengthen future agendas.
Meeting agenda templates
Want to create a professional-looking meeting template, but have no idea where to start? We’ve put together very clean, straightforward, and free meeting agenda templates that you can use and customize for your team. This includes the following:
- General meeting agenda template
- Brainstorm meeting agenda template
- One-on-one meeting agenda template
- Project check-in meeting agenda template
- Team meeting agenda template
- Retrospective meeting agenda template
If you don’t find what you’re looking for here — or need a more specialized meeting template — here are some of the best meeting agenda templates from around the web:
- Asana’s daily standup meeting template
- Asana’s easy-to-adapt meeting template
- TemplateLab’s 46 effective meeting agenda templates
- BoardEffect’s board meeting template
- Soapbox’s weekly meeting agenda templates
- LucidMeetings’ meeting guides and templates
With these meeting agenda templates and tips, you should leave every meeting, action items in hand, feeling like it was time well spent.