How to Create Effective Meeting Agendas for Productive Meetings
Want to run productive meetings? It may be tempting to think that all it takes is a few best practices.
Show up with the right attitude. Get everyone engaged. Keep an eye on the clock to ensure the meeting wraps up on time.
While those skills are certainly valuable once you're in the room, truly effective meetings are born long before the meeting date, even before invites are sent out.
It all starts with the meeting agenda.
Great meetings are derived from necessity. That necessity needs to be well-defined before a leader can decide who needs to be in a meeting and how it will run.
Meeting agendas accomplish exactly that, and much more, serving as a team preparation tool before the meeting, and a guide during it. An effective meeting agenda includes meeting goals, discussion topics, and other necessary information to set a team up for success.
The best meetings come from meeting leaders who do two things:
- Create the meeting agenda in advance
- Create meeting notes by filling information into the agenda
How to create your meeting agenda
Your first step in putting together your agenda is to, well, put it in a document. This sets up how easy it will be for meeting attendees to create, share, and reference your agenda.
Options for formatting your agenda include:
- Word doc
- Google Doc
- Put the agenda in the calendar invite
- Use a document-in-folder notes app like Evernote or OneNote
- Use a calendar-based meeting notes software like Hugo
You will want to consider whether anyone else will need to contribute to the agenda or be able to comment on it. If so, emailing the agenda is going to add friction there, so going for a more shared approach is going to be useful.
For example, you may want to design a beautiful agenda PDF and send it out. However, this is going to make it difficult or impossible for others to make suggestions to the agenda, or fill in their part with more detail if they are presenting at your meeting. That's why a shared document is often preferable.
But, regardless of what platform you choose for your agenda, here are the best practices to use to make the best meeting agenda possible.
Creating your meeting agenda in advance
Early agenda creation has multiple benefits — from narrowing down meeting goals, which helps identify who needs to be in the room — to estimating a realistic meeting length for the discussion topics included. Outlining a meeting before sending out invites increases the likelihood that attendees will arrive prepared, since they’ll know what’s on the agenda.
Here are a few key things to keep in mind while creating a meeting agenda:
Make the agenda well enough in advance to share it.
In most circumstances, it’s not productive to spring meeting goals and discussion topics on your attendees the day of the meeting. That might work for weekly meetings with low-stakes decision making objectives. But, a wiser approach is to get into the habit of sharing well thought-out meeting agendas with room for attendees to suggest changes. Agendas are more powerful when shared, and when attendees can contribute to them.
Whether a key piece of information needs to be included to inform the meeting — or more time needs to be allocated to a topic which a team member feels is more complex than it appears — enabling attendee engagement early on forms a strong foundation and grants attendees ownership. What’s more, building an agenda in advance gives the meeting leader plenty of time to organize thoughts and goals, and make sure that nothing important is missing from the agenda on meeting day.
Not sure where to start? Check out some of these sample meeting agenda templates for inspiration.
Decide on a formal or informal agenda.
Those weekly low-stakes internal meetings probably require a different agenda style than, say, a meeting with a new potential partner. An informal meeting agenda may be short and simple, something like this:
Marketing Campaign Reflection Meeting
1. Housekeeping (5 mins, all attendees)
2. Presentation of marketing campaign results (10 mins, Joe S.)
3. Discuss strengths and weaknesses of campaign (20 mins, all)
4. Brainstorm adjustments for next campaign (20 mins, all)
5. Assign project leads and deadlines (5 mins, Samantha Q.)
An agenda like this assumes quite a few things: that everyone understands what to expect from “housekeeping,” that Joe has been given enough notice that he will be making a 10-minute presentation, and that attendees have been involved enough with the marketing campaign to identify strengths and weaknesses and brainstorm adjustments. There may also already be internal discussion/brainstorming practices in place which ensure all voices are heard.
An informal agenda such as this is fine as long as attendees are familiar with the processes utilized at each stage of the meeting. Still, sharing it in advance so that Joe can communicate that he may need more time, or another team member can suggest more brainstorming allocation, is beneficial in ensuring the meeting will be productive.
A partnership meeting, of course, is a meeting that will likely require a more formal, detailed agenda. Sharing a well-written meeting agenda at the time of invitation gives everyone internally and externally the same opportunity to prepare and give feedback as needed.
Use action-oriented language in your agenda
The best agenda topics are also more than just a procedural list. They explain the goal of that part of the meeting as an action. For example, "Brainstorm adjustments for the next campaign" is much stronger than simply saying, "Brainstorm."
Here's a super-short video explaining how to create action-packed agendas.
Identify meeting goals, and state them clearly.
Why have a meeting at all? Before diving into agenda creation, be sure to have a clear idea of what the meeting is trying to achieve. Making a clear goal statement (or a few) not only helps invitees anticipate what they’ll need to do to arrive prepared, but also help with guiding the creation of the agenda.
One way to help attendees arrive prepared is to include the questions which need to be answered in the agenda. Questions inspire thinking better than ambiguous statements that don’t describe the issue at hand. Instead of “Discuss marketing campaign,” for example, try “What went well with this campaign? What did not? Why?”
A good question to ask at this phase of agenda creation is “How will we know when the goal has been achieved?” Visualize what a successful meeting outcome will look like, and be sure to make that desired outcome clear on the agenda.
Be sure to arrange presentations, discussion topics, etc. and their related goals in a way that makes sense. Brainstorming new marketing campaign ideas may yield quite a few unusable suggestions if the previous campaign’s results haven’t yet been shared.
One more word of advice on meeting goals: if they seem to be focused only on information sharing, seriously consider whether a meeting is necessary. If the information can be shared in a less resource-demanding format, that may be a better option. Meetings require many people to find a shared time to come together during work hours, which can negatively affect productivity if the meeting purpose doesn’t justify the effort. Better meeting ideas are ones which require collaboration, such as customer meetings, post-mortems, onboarding, or one-on-ones.
Enable preparation before meeting day.
Nothing’s worse than attendees showing up to a meeting unprepared to discuss the topics at hand. While clearly stating a goal can help reduce the chances of this happening, another option is to include expectations in the agenda when invitations are sent. If, for example, attendees need to be familiar with certain documents before they can reasonably participate in a discussion topic, state as much and attach the documents to the agenda and meeting invite.
Even the informal agenda above noted the time allotted for each agenda item and who would be involved at each stage; that’s because this information is important for preparation. When all attendees understand the expected pace and participation of the meeting, it reinforces the need to arrive prepared and helps keep the meeting on topic once in session.
With a well-constructed agenda shared in advance with all meeting invitees, everyone will be on the same page on the day of the meeting. The agenda’s job, however, is far from over: it will prove helpful in pacing, focusing, and recording the meeting’s progress.
Using the agenda to create notes during the meeting.
As mentioned earlier, the second thing great meeting leaders do is create meeting notes by filling in the agenda. One way to do this is by having a note taker.
Maximize productivity with a note taker.
There are many ways to take meeting notes, but one of the most productive practices is designating one note taker who will share the notes with all attendees (and anyone else who needs to know what happened) after the meeting is over.
This may happen via a shared document, or even a whiteboard that gets photographed and shared at the end of the meeting. With meeting note platforms like Hugo, however, things are much easier than that, especially with a prepared agenda to guide the notes.
Follow the agenda and fill in notes along the way.
If agenda items have been properly arranged, it should be relatively easy to move down the agenda as the meeting progresses. Allocated times and participants noted at each phase should also help keep the meeting on task, ensuring that each agenda item receives attention and (hopefully) resolution.
Another benefit of well-written agendas is the ability to use them to make the most of notetaking. Writing notes directly into meeting items has multiple benefits. It puts the meeting notes in context both for the note taker and anyone who will be reviewing the notes later, especially people who were not in attendance at the meeting.
Filling meeting notes in on the agenda also clears up which meeting goals have been met and which still require action. Assigning team members to action items and noting due dates in the meeting notes keeps critical information in one, easy-to-navigate place: the agenda everyone has access to. With some modern productivity tools, access to the new, note-filled version of the agenda can be available immediately when the meeting ends, so that everyone is clear on next steps.
Most of the work that goes into creating effective agendas and running great meetings is in the preparation, with some happening during the meeting. Before the meeting ends, however, there are a couple things you can do to make sure that the meeting has met its goals and that future ones do as well:
Before adjourning, ask if anyone has any questions. Be prepared for anything from one individual’s lack of clarity on a small issue, to the whole group remaining confused about whether the goal of the meeting has realistically been achieved. If time was allocated in the agenda for answering questions, there shouldn’t be pressure to rush through making sure everyone understands which desired outcomes were, and were not, met.
Review the meeting.
Especially when working on building a better meeting culture, it’s not a bad idea at the end of a meeting to simply ask attendees: How did this meeting go? What when well? What didn’t? What can be done better next time? The feedback received from these questions can inform and shape better meetings in the future.
With collaborative preparation, a team ready to stay on-task, and thoughtful reflection, wasted time in meetings can become a thing of the past. With the help of strong meeting agendas, productivity goes up and disengagement drops.
Ready to create effective agendas and lead better meetings? Browse some meeting agenda templates and get started now!