Before Your Next Meeting, Apply These 7 Tips to Your Agenda

UPDATED: June 10, 2019
PUBLISHED: January 20, 2015
Meetings Matter 1

Meetings—they can be a dreaded obligation, time wasted that could have been spent working on real tasks. That’s what most of us think when our calendar dings, reminding us of our 3 o’clock obligation. But in his new book, Meetings Matter, Paul Axtell vows that they’re quite the opposite, as one of the most powerful tools we have to get things done.

Effective meetings don’t just happen. They must be designed. In this excerpt, Axtell shares his tips for ensuring each conversation during a meeting creates results:

Every conversation in a meeting is made up of content, or what’s to be discussed, and the process determines how it will be discussed. You must design a step-by-step approach that will get you to your desired outcome for each item on the agenda.

To start, answer two content (“what”) questions:

1. What conversations do we need to have together?
2. What do we want to achieve in each conversation?

Once your basic expectations are set, every piece of the agenda should be examined to determine the following:

Who is the owner?
Who requested time on the agenda for it? This is the person you will ask to set the stage for discussing the topic and the same person who will wrap up the discussion at the end.

What are the desired outcomes?
Where do you want to be at the end of the discussion? Specific objectives for each discussion help participants contribute comments and questions that are relevant. Defining the outcomes up front also gives people clarity about where the conversation is intended to finish.

How much time is required?
How long will it take to work through this issue? Start with thinking in terms of 20-minute blocks. One reason to schedule fewer agenda items in a meeting is to allow you to take more time for a discussion if necessary. Start by scheduling the amount of time you think the group will require if people stay on track and work effectively. This provides a realistic timeframe yet creates just the right amount of tension to stay focused and keep comments relevant. You can always add five or 10 minutes if necessary to complete your topic. People also feel their time is being well spent if there is a sense of getting things done in a deliberate, efficient way.

What input do you seek?
What are you looking for from participants? Being clear up front about what you want from the group will help keep the conversation on track. It also lets the group know how best to contribute. Sometimes you are looking for ideas. Sometimes you are looking for potential risks. Other times you are looking for alignment, and you want everyone to identify anything that might interfere.

What preparation would be helpful?
In addition to the agenda, what would be helpful for participants to receive ahead of time in order to prepare for discussing this topic? You can’t expect people to read through anything during a meeting and provide useful insights. The quality of many discussions is dependent on the group having time to reflect on the topic and expectations prior to the meeting.

Who should lead the conversation?
Consider having someone other than the person who requested time on the agenda manage the discussion of this topic. For most conversations, it’s best for the owner of the topic to be able to focus on listening to the group rather than managing.

What is the group size?
How many people will attend? Groups larger than eight will especially benefit from visible process steps, such as a chart or handout, to help focus people’s comments.

Check out 7 keys to a flawless conversation—and show up to your next meeting an expert on how to start, continue and end a talk.


Excerpted from Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations by Paul Axtell (© 2015 by Paul Axtell)

Paul Axtell is the author of the new book Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations and has more than 35 years of experience as a personal effectiveness consultant and corporate trainer. He has a wide variety of clients, from Fortune 500 companies and universities to nonprofit organizations and government agencies.