How and Why to Use a Meeting Agenda

This article explains how a meeting agenda can help you plan more effective meetings.

Download a blank agenda template (Microsoft Word) you can print and use.

A meeting agenda helps you and your colleagues prepare for a meeting and guide yourselves through the items you need to discuss. Time spent in planning an agenda will likely save time for all meeting participants by providing a clear set of topics, objectives, and time frames. Some meetings may require more planning time than others. For example, a department-wide retreat will probably involve several hours of planning by several people, while a weekly staff meeting could be planned by one person in a shorter amount of time.

A sample agenda with commentary on each section is below. As you read through the sample, you may click on linked items to jump to explanations of those items.

Item Desired Outcome Priority Time Who How
Project Updates share info high 50 Jack go-around
Department Meeting Prep feedback for editing proposal high 20 Juanita feedback to proposal
Vendor Fair seeking volunteers! medium 10 Lisa share info and needs
2018 Team Priorities get a shared view of our priorities and provide input for Li high 40 Ravi spend-a-dollar and discussion
International Students Fair get list of ideas for preparing our participation medium 10 Jack brainstorm
Action Items list actions, due date and person responsible high 10 Jack list items and get commitment

Below you'll find a description of the parts of an agenda, tips for helping them work, and additional resources for planning and facilitating effective meetings.

Parts of an agenda


The item is easy; it's the content or topic to be considered. Make sure the right people are in the room for reaching the desired outcome for that item. Meeting participants should have the proper role for addressing the item (for example, the authority to make decisions if that is a desired outcome) and the item should justify their attention.

Desired outcome

A desired outcome is the result you would like for your item. Clarifying the desired outcome is perhaps the most important step in agenda planning. Defining your desired outcome helps you think about priority, time, who and how. Some examples of desired outcomes include "an agreement about X," "a decision about X," or "a list of X."


We have found that items bearing "low priority" never get discussed so all our items end up medium or high. We have no objective criteria for these ratings. When planning for the meeting, if the total time needed for high priority items exceeds the meeting length, the group should negotiate which items will be handled within the meeting time, or consider lengthening the meeting. Explain that any items withdrawn will get first priority at the next meeting, or find a means to address those items outside of the meeting.


Projecting the time you need is easier if you've planned the "how" and "desired outcome" parts of the item. Without that planning, it's easy to underestimate how much time is needed to achieve a desired outcome. Even with planning, you may still underestimate in the beginning, so it may be helpful to increase your projected times by about 33% until you've got some skill at it. Your colleagues will likely be much more satisfied by participating in a lengthy, meaningful discussion than by taking part in a truncated conversation that doesn't allow for meaningful participation.


This is the person who is responsible for seeing the item through to completion. In some cases that person may introduce the item while a colleague guides the discussion, so the person who is responsible for the topic can listen more fully to the discussion.


Our sample agenda lists several ways to handle a discussion:

  • go-around: simply taking turns to speak; generally going in a circle around the room or table

  • feedback: asking the group to respond to specific questions about an idea

  • share info and needs: giving information about the topic. In the example, Lisa is going to share information; she will describe a project, her needs for handling it, and ask for volunteers

  • spend-a-dollar and discussion: this method asks group members to assign any part of an imaginary "100 cents" amongst a number of ideas. In the example, the group will use spend-a-dollar to rank their team priorities. Spend-a-dollar is similar to a "straw poll" -- it helps a group see which ideas in a list are high priority, and how strongly members feel about those ideas. Discussion is a good follow-up step to refine the results into useful input.

  • brainstorm: when a group generates ideas freely and openly. An important element of brainstorming is that it does not involve the evaluation of ideas -- the goal is to generate as many ideas as possible. See our brainstorming guidelines.

Additional recommendations

We recommend that groups use a flipchart during meetings to keep informed and to record agreements made. In addition, meetings generally go better when one person acts as facilitator.


There are other dimensions to planning effective meetings, but this simple agenda format offers a good foundation for a successful meeting. Here are three additional tips to supplement the specifics we've already outlined:

  1. Flexibility. At its best, a well planned meeting opens with a "planful guess" of how to handle the agenda. A smart facilitator checks with the group at the meeting's outset to see if important last-minute items need be added to the agenda and to negotiate and juggle the agenda to include them. Once underway you may find that an item requires more time, in which case you may negotiate for that during the meeting, or find a good stopping point before reaching your desired outcome. This choice, too, can be decided by negotiation with the meeting participants.
  2. Preparation. Deciding the who, how, time, priority and desired outcome for each item requires preparation. The greater the preparation, the greater the probability of a successful outcome during the meeting.
  3. Shared Responsibility. Whether the item owner, facilitator, group leader, or group member plans a good meeting, collaborative effort is key -- before, during, and after the event itself. With collaborative effort, a meeting becomes an integral part of each person's productivity and satisfaction.