We recently had a multi-phase engagement with a client during which we got to know their culture quite well. As is sometimes the case, the bit of wisdom our learners needed to hear most came from one of their own. “If there isn’t an agenda, it’s not a meeting; it’s a conversation.”
I wholeheartedly agree. So, let’s talk about the why and the how of creating and using agendas.
Agendas Promise Structure
In our training, we talk a lot about how presenters and meeting facilitators need to earn their audience’s trust. This starts with how you frame the communication. A frame includes four elements: an explanation of the current situation, your goal facilitator, the benefit of this meeting to the listeners, and an agenda. All four elements are important for building trust as the meeting begins, but the agenda has a lot of power throughout.
Having an agenda shows listeners that you’ve thought about where you’re going and how you’re going to spend the meeting participants’ precious time. Think about it like a contract you make with the others in the room: you promise to cover what’s on the agenda in the allotted amount of time without straying from your points. At the end of the meeting or presentation, when you’ve done that, the contract is fulfilled, and trust is banked for next time.
The agenda also builds trust by helping listeners understand the pace and progress of your meeting so they know that you’re covering what’s relevant to them. Let’s face it, sometimes, people at work attend meetings or presentations for just part of the information being talked about. The agenda helps those people know when the information they care about is coming up—and even assures them from the start that it’s going to be talked about at all.
Guidelines for Agendas that Work
Let’s start with an idea that surprises people: your agenda can be the same length for an hour-long presentation as it is for a day-long meeting. The agenda is not a table of contents. It’s not even really a road map for your meeting where every landmark and turn are detailed. Instead, think of it as an itinerary: First, we’ll go here, then there, and finally, we’ll end up over that way.
Here are a few more guidelines for making your agenda. All of them are important, and throughout all the training we’ve done, none of us have seen a situation where there was a reason to stray very far from them.
- Create your agenda when you first start putting together your slides or laying out what you’re going to say.
- Revisit the agenda as the meeting takes shape. You may see the need to change order or wording as you get into the details. If you find yourself making major changes frequently, it may be a signal to step back and reconsider the agenda. Does it hang together? Should it be adjusted?
- Make sure your agenda items are grammatically parallel; that is, make sure they all begin with the same part of speech and have the same sentence structure. This may sound persnickety, but it’s important for practical reasons. It makes you think about what your agenda is going to do. If your agenda is for a meeting in which specific goals need to be met, you might want to start with active verbs like “Discuss,” “Decide,” and “Plan.” If you are delivering an informational presentation, you might instead focus on how the information will build. For example
- Reasons for groundwater depletion
- Current workarounds
- Recommended long-term solutions
As you can see, each item is a short phrase, and each builds logically from the others. You could use this type of agenda for any length of meeting. Your audience will understand that the level of detail within each item is going to change based on time. You can even have a sub-agenda for each section as long as it meets these guidelines.
Remember, no matter how long the engagement is, the frame should take about a minute and a half to deliver. If it takes a lot longer than that because of the agenda, you might be running into a couple of issues. Don’t fret! They’re easy to solve.
- Check to see if you’ve brought some of the actual information or body of the presentation into your agenda. Data, analysis, and implications don’t belong in the agenda. Instead, agenda items should be high-level descriptions of what will happen in each section. Let’s look at some examples of content vs. agenda item.
What you accomplish by keeping the content out of your agenda is that you get to communicate the structure of the meeting without getting bogged down in details prematurely.
Rely on the agenda during the meeting
Your agenda isn’t just for the beginning of your engagement. It can be brought in at various moments to help both you and the audience stay on track and manage time. Here’s how:
- In a long presentation, you might repeat the agenda slide between sections. On the slide, highlight the next item you’re about to discuss. In your delivery, you can say things like, “Next, we’re going to talk about…” or “Before we open up to discussion, we’ll address the last item, the team’s recommendations.” This is you reminding your listeners that you’re sticking to the contract you established and letting them know where they are in the process.
- The agenda can help you manage the discussion. For example, if a four-item agenda has been shared, and the meeting is half over with only one item covered, it’s easy to say, “As you know, we have three more areas to discuss, so let’s table this discussion and move on to the next item.” Because you shared your agenda, this is a lot more reliable and believable than the vaguer, “We still have a lot left to do,” or worse still, appearing to cut people off because they don’t know what else is left to discuss.
- At the end of your presentation or meeting, recapping your agenda can be a good way to emphasize that you have fulfilled your contract. This can be especially powerful if you have a doubting or resistant audience. Showing them that you did what you promised (assuming, of course, that you actually did) increases your status as a trusted speaker.
As you can see, there’s a lot of power in a handful of agenda items provided that you stick to the guidelines: keep it brief, simple and free from actual content, stick with your plan in order to maintain and grow trust, and use the agenda to manage both your own delivery and your audience’s expectations.