As communicators, when we go to the trouble to stage a group event of any type, we're usually focused on its main content. Whether it's a speaking engagement, conference, seminar, office brainstorming session, or club meeting, there are critical messages to present. We work and work at those to get them right. Usually, there are also lots of event logistics to nail down. We go over details to make sure we have covered everything. But in the midst of all our planning, we may forget to generate an agenda: a simple list of what we want to happen when. Or we may actually decide not to publish one. But that's a mistake. A formal agenda enhances audience focus. Without one, people will be continuously distracted in a myriad of tiny ways.
Agenda-less meeting-goers are like tourists without a map. Here in Manhattan, when we come across lost out-of-towners on our streets, we New Yorkers love to help them. First of all, they're instantly recognizable, in a kind of adorable way: they're the fanny-pack-wearing folks doing that slow whirl at the curb, unfocused eyes sweeping over a bewildering skyline, face muscles tensed like sixth-graders at a spelling bee.
When we natives step up, explain where they are, show them where to go, then see their look of relief and gratitude, it's like hitting a mini-jackpot right there on the street. That's because we know we've helped them engage with our city. They came to New York to have a good time, and they truly weren't having a good time just then, and now they can again -- because of us and our superior city-smarts. How good does that feel? We like to be ambassadors for the Big Apple and build relationships with people on its behalf. (The stereotype of the rude New Yorker is mostly false. As a group, we tend to feel that visitors need to be taken care of, like puppies, and above all profoundly pitied because they don't get to live here.)
A published meeting agenda accomplishes the same sort of effect. When people come to an event, they're wondering what to expect. That mental state of wondering is a constant undercurrent of distraction. They can't position themselves on the Map of What Happens Next; their inner GPS is constantly saying, "Recalculating." Meeting attendees turn into furtive detectives, feeling compelled to look for clues, because they don't know how to modify their behavior to fit upcoming situations that have yet to be revealed. They may be gritting their teeth in polite smiles, but at some level, they feel stupid, stymied, powerless -- and angry about it.
That's a great combo if you want your audience to shut out what you are saying!
At the agenda-less events I attended this past week, the tension manifested itself in a few different ways.
- At a business association breakfast, people milled around, uncertain about when meal service would begin. Sponsors stood at their display tables around the edges of the hall, ready to chat, but attenders weren't sure whether they had time to go mingle before coffee was served at the tables. And since coffee was on everyone's mind, a kind of diffused hesitation paralyzed the room for most of the first hour.
- At a financial planning event that happened in the evening, the main speaker was working from a dense, graph-heavy PowerPoint deck that seemed endless. A start time had been given on the invitation, but not a finish time. Moreover, the speaker kept saying "This is the last point I want to make." He wasn't reading the non-verbals in the room, but the audience was reading each others' -- and it was becoming clear that desperation was eroding everyone's attention span. The last 30 minutes of that expert's presentation were wasted.
- At a midtown seminar I attended yesterday, the instructor distributed a handout, then proceeded not to follow its flow. Attendees were left in the dark: which items would he cover, and when? At one point (having rushed to the seminar directly from another appointment) I knew I needed a rest room break. But I also knew that I had come to that seminar for one topic in particular, and it hadn't been covered yet. So I suffered in my seat, not hearing much of what was said. Many of us were in the same state when we went to see the movie Titanic, bought a large Coke, then had to bolt for the bathroom before the iceberg hit, hoping the ship wouldn't sink while we were gone.
An agenda is an important tool to build trust and keep your event audience engaged. Don't neglect to tell your attendees what will happen and when.
Here are some good points to remember when you make your agenda:
- Make it visible. An announced agenda is good, but verbal announcements tend to be remembered poorly, especially when lots of other content is being communicated. You don't need to print an agenda for everyone, though that's a good option. Save money: write it on a whiteboard, feature it on a flip chart easel, or simply post a hard copy at the door and/or place a few printouts out on tables.
- Use simple structure. On the left, show the time interval. On the right, show what's happening. For example:
- 7:30 Registration & Raffle Sign-Up Front desk
- 8:00 Member display booths Concourse
- 8:30 Breakfast service at tables Ballroom
- 9:15 Awards and Featured Speakers "
- 9:45 Raffle winner drawing "
- Be lean. No prolonged welcomes, credits, announcements, or explanations. The agenda should serve a single purpose: to tell what will happen, and when. (And where, if segments of the event will be staged in different locations.)
- Include a header with meeting identifiers. Being lean does not include failing to put at the top of the page the event name, venue and date. If different people have the podium for long intervals, you should show when each is scheduled to speak, and include their names, titles and topics if possible. Remember, our point is to reduce confusion, so put in any clarifiers you feel are appropriate.
- Call out breaks and end times. This is important! It manages the squirm factor (and reduces under-the-table email-checking and texting).
- Keep to the schedule. Once you've finalized your agenda, you need to make sure all your principal event stakeholders understand that they need to keep to it. Go over it with them before the event so they can bring up their questions, but make it clear that this is how we will roll today -- period.
- If you must make last-minute agenda changes, announce them as early in the event as possible, and refer to them at least three times during the event in case people arrived late or didn't pay attention the first time.
An agenda helps the rest of your messaging succeed. Even informal gatherings are enhanced by one. It decreases participants' uncertainty, and increases the facilitators' accountability. Both are good for effective communication.
Like rescuing tourists lost on a street corner, publishing an agenda is great way start building a positive relationship with your audience. Not publishing one means risking audience distrust and detachment.
There's a reason we use the term "hidden agenda" negatively. At your next event, don't hide yours.