How to Create a Time-Saving Meeting Agenda [Plus Free Template]

Dale Cudmore
Last Updated on August 18, 2020
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I can’t count the number of times I’ve almost fallen asleep in meetings due to boredom.

The large number of unproductive meetings that I used to have to participate in was a key factor in my decision to create my own business.

  • Harvard Business Review conducted a survey of 182 senior managers and found that 71% viewed meetings as unproductive and inefficient.
  • Other research has shown that at large businesses approximately 31 hours per month is spent in unproductive meetings.
  • In addition, half of the meetings attended were considered a waste of time.

It might not be quite that bad if you’re running or work for a small business, but you’ve likely noticed the wasted time.

Meetings can be effective, but good planning skills are critical.

The good news is these skills are easy to learn.

People in a meeting
Image courtesy of rawpixel.com under a Pexels License.

An effective meeting starts with a meeting agenda.

An agenda serves as the outline of important meeting information, and what will be covered. It provides clear direction for meetings and can save you several hours per month.

If you want to learn what makes a meeting agenda effective, this post is for you.

We’ll break down the most important elements of an agenda, go over the steps you should follow when creating one, and end with some samples and a free agenda template.

Why Are Meeting Plans Important?

Almost any type of meeting can be improved by using a well-planned agenda. This includes:

  • Brainstorming sessions
  • Project updates
  • Decision-making meetings
  • Problem-solving sessions
  • Team building meetings

It’s rare that an agenda would hurt your productivity, and it will almost always increase it instead.

Five Advantages to Using Meeting Agendas

There are 5 main advantages that meetings with agendas have over meetings without agendas:

  1. No surprises – People come in knowing exactly what’s going to be covered in advance.
  2. Time to prepare – Agendas should be sent out in advance. Attendees can review important documents ahead of time, so there’s no time wasted in the meeting.
  3. No wasted time figuring out what needs to be done – No one’s going to wonder “Hmm, what should we discuss next?” because it’s all planned out on the agenda.
  4. Everyone leaves knowing the outcome and next action steps – In meetings without an agenda, you often leave not knowing what work each member needs to do in the future. An agenda makes sure there are notetakers, leaders, and role assignments are given.
  5. Faster, due to Parkinson’s law – The law states “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” By creating an agenda with time limits, you’re forced to be focused on your outcomes.

Note that this applies to effective meeting agendas.

If you want the full benefits, you need to have a process for creating high-quality agendas.

I’ll show you a good process throughout the rest of this post.

What Are the Elements of an Effective Meeting Plan?

Before we can look at the exact process to follow to write a meeting agenda, you first need to understand the individual elements of a good agenda.

Let’s go through them briefly.

Clear Goals and Time Limits

All agenda items should have an estimated time limit.

For example:

  • Review agenda (2 minutes)
  • Review inventory data (5 minutes)
  • Determine which inventory needs to be ordered (5 minutes)
  • Assign team member responsibility to make the order (1 minute)

The idea is to give each main agenda item a reasonable time goal. This leverages Parkinson’s law, as covered above.

It forces team members to try and be as efficient as possible.

That doesn’t mean you can’t go over the time limit if needed, but it sets a realistic target that keeps the meeting progressing.

Short With a Narrow Scope

Think of a list of chores.

If there are only a few things, you know you can get through them quickly and move onto the rest of your day.

But when the list has several things on it, it seems like a mountain that can overwhelm you.

The same goes for an agenda because let’s face it, meetings are often seen as chores.

If your agenda has 2 hours worth of items, most workers will skim on their preparation, and dread the meeting.

Include No More Than Five Items

I’d recommend limiting your agenda to 5 items at the most. That will require a small amount of preparation by each attendee, and they know that the meeting won’t take too long.

If you feel that you need to address more items, split the meeting into multiple meetings with smaller objectives.

Assign Clear Roles and Responsibilities for Attendees

The “bystander effect” describes the situation where people are less likely to help in a time of need if there are many other people present.

The same effect applies to meetings.

If you have 5 or 10 people in a meeting, it’s unlikely that anyone will actively take charge and lead the team towards objectives.

To combat the bystander effect, medical professionals are trained to call out specific people and give them instructions in times of need.

A good agenda should do the same. By assigning specific roles to attendees, it ensures that everyone knows how they can and should help.

For example:

  • John will be taking meeting minutes
  • Kerry will be leading the agenda review
  • Paige will be leading the data review item of the agenda

Specify Any Preparation Required From Attendees

The most annoying waste of time in meetings comes from someone having to look over documents in order to catch up with the rest of the team.

A good agenda tells you how to prepare for the meeting. For example: “Review the Q4 Sales Report, especially the chart on page 32” or “Bring your laptop and charging cable.”

This ensures that everyone is prepared individually and you don’t waste time having attendees reviewing things during the meeting, or running back to their office to grab something.

When one person wastes time during a meeting, it wastes time for everyone, which is why a good agenda is so effective.

Send the Agenda to Attendees Three to Four Days Prior to Meeting

meeting agenda advance
Digital.com image

This is a small, but crucial part of an effective meeting agenda.

If you don’t send it out in advance, and only give it to attendees at the actual meeting, it can help you stay on track, but it does nothing for you in terms of preparation.

If you send it out 1-2 days before the meeting, it can help. But you run the risk of attendees not having enough time to prepare for the meeting, although they will bring the correct materials.

Three to four days is generally the most popular time frame to send out an agenda in advance. It shouldn’t be hard to free up some time (at most an hour) to prepare in 3-4 days.

If you send it out earlier than that, you risk people putting off preparing or forgetting about it because it’s so far out. In other words, there’s no urgency.

List the Items in Order of Priority

Always start with the most important item.

Sometimes your time allotment for each item may prove to be insufficient. By starting with the most important items, you ensure that, even if you run out of time, the most important issues were addressed.

Include an Allotted Time at the End for New Issues

The very first thing you do in any meeting should be to review and modify the agenda.

This often means adding more items to cover at the end of your agenda. Additionally, other topics may come up during the meeting itself.

You should always plan to have some extra time at the end of the meeting on top of your initial estimates.

So if your time estimates for all the items add up to 20 minutes, don’t schedule a 20-minute meeting. Instead, schedule a 30-minute meeting.

Remain Focused

Finally, ensure that you stay focused during this extra time. You don’t want it to balloon out of control with off-topic discussion.

Focus on the items on the agenda, and when you’ve met your objectives, end the meeting, even if there’s time to spare.

How to Write a Meeting Agenda That Works

Now it’s time to put all those elements into practice in the form of a process that you can follow to create your agendas.

Your company should have a documented process for this so that everyone’s agenda looks and functions the same.

For now, read through the steps, then we’ll look at some agenda examples.

Step #1: Decide on the Goal of the Meeting

No meeting should be planned without an objective in mind. Otherwise, it’s just busy work.

The objective should be clearly stated near the top of your agenda. One or two sentences should suffice.

Next, determine the main items that need to be addressed in order to reach this objective.

For example, if you were planning your marketing launch for a new product, you might divide it into:

  1. Choose marketing channels
  2. Determine budget
  3. Brainstorm strategy
  4. Assign responsibilities

Remember, keep the list of agenda items as short as possible. Less than 5 is ideal.

If you’re not sure which items need to be included in the agenda, consult with someone more involved with the project. That might be someone on your team or even a customer.

Step #2: Identify Attendees and Other Basic Information

Most agendas will want to include information like:

  • Starting time
  • Length
  • Room or dial-in number (or video call URL)
  • Who called the meeting
  • Role assignments (e.g. who will take notes).

Additionally, you should list what documents (if any) need to be read or reviewed before the meeting, and what each attendee needs to bring (if anything).

Step #3: Start With a Review of the Agenda

You should always start with a brief review of the agenda.

Step #4: List the Agenda Items

Create a section or heading for each item you came up with in step #1.

The reason you brainstormed the basic information is that it will often affect the list of attendees and preparation work.

Leave enough space to add further details.

Step #5: Set Outcomes for Each Agenda Item

Just as the overall meeting has a goal, each individual item should have a smaller outcome that keeps you progressing to that overall goal.

Below each item heading, add a short 1 or 2 sentence description of what your team should accomplish when that item is complete.

During the meeting, you should move on when a section’s objective is met.

Step #6: Set Estimated Times for Each Item

As discussed, you want to set a time expectation for each section to keep attendees focused on the meeting’s goals.

You can add a separate line under each heading for this, or add it to the heading in brackets.

Step #7: Identify Section Leads

Perhaps you called for the meeting and are organizing it, but that doesn’t mean you necessarily will lead each part of it.

For example, if you called for a meeting about a site redesign, it may make sense for your developer(s) to lead some of the agenda’s items.

Step #8: Elaborate How You Will Reach Each Mini-Objective

You can go into as much or as little detail on this step.

There are often many ways to approach an individual item on your agenda.

For example, if you had a section for “brainstorm content ideas,” you could approach this by:

  • Having everyone come up with 10 ideas of their own
  • Have one person writing down suggestions from the group on a whiteboard
  • Going around one-by-one asking for contributions on the spot

All could achieve the objective for that item, but picking one ahead of time avoids wasting time during the meeting asking “what’s the best way to approach this?

Step #9: Send the Agenda to Attendees

The agenda is complete at this point, just leave a small space at the bottom or side for notes.

As discussed, you should send this out to all attendees 3-4 days before the meeting itself.

If possible, get confirmation that they read and acknowledged their personal responsibilities and that they will be attending.

You may also get some feedback on agenda items and could create a new version if necessary.

Meeting Agenda Example

You have all these thoughts in your head now, and hopefully, they’ve started to form a picture of what a meeting agenda actually looks like.

Most companies don’t release their meeting agendas publicly, so it’s tricky to find samples.

This public example comes from the U.S. Department of State. This meeting agenda was used by a non-profit organization:

meeting agenda sample simple

It’s decent for a simple, stripped down meeting agenda, but I think you and I can do better.

Downloadable Template

Here’s a downloadable template that I created using Google Docs:

modern meeting agenda sample

Feel free to download the template and alter it for your own use.

You can see that it encompasses everything from the process we looked at before:

  1. A clear objective for the meeting at the top
  2. Detailed meeting information
  3. Attendee list and responsibilities (e.g. note-taking)
  4. What needs to be brought to the meeting and reviewed prior
  5. Four main agenda items, each with a leader, objective, and outcome
  6. Some space for any notes that come up during the meeting

While your agenda doesn’t have to look beautiful, making a decent looking template makes it more readable (easier to follow).

Conclusion

At this point, you should understand why meeting agendas are effective, what makes them effective, and how to make your own.

It may take some time and persistence to get your team on board with using agendas, but many employees are receptive to the idea since time-wasting meetings are universally disliked.

Start by explaining the benefits (e.g. time saved), and you’re much more likely to get buy-in from your team.

If you know someone else who would enjoy this guide or the template, feel free to share it with them.


Contributing Editors: Bronwynne Powell and Sherrie Gossett

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