Organizational Development Consultant and Leadership Coach

Planning is critical to successful meetings: use this checklist to help you prepare

August 15, 2018

What you do before your meetings is every bit as important as what you do in them. In fact, without effective pre-meeting planning and organization, the quality of your meetings will certainly suffer, and some will very likely fail.

Most facilitators plan to some degree. Many consider their meetings planned if they create an agenda, send it out, book a room, and order the coffee. But proficient pre-meeting planning needs to go beyond these basics. The level of planning a facilitator attains before the meeting separates the true professional from the rank amateur. And meeting results speak for themselves.

Use the following premeeting planning questions to prepare for every meeting you facilitate. Five categories of questions will help you focus on the major elements of every meeting: foundation, specific agenda items, logistics, reporting, and evaluation.

This checklist demonstrates the questions you need to ask to build your meeting agendas and will tune you in to your meetings like never before.

Pre-Meeting Planning Questions:
Five categories of questions will help you focus on the major elements of every meeting: foundation, specific agenda items, logistics, reporting, and evaluation.
This checklist demonstrates the questions you need to ask to build your meeting agendas and will tune you in to your meetings like never before.

1. Foundation Questions
What is the purpose and/or goal(s) of this meeting?
This sounds like a basic question, but you’d be surprised how often the meeting’s purpose, goals, and expected outcomes are not clear and not agreed upon. This lack of clarity means your meeting will be doomed before it starts.

Is a meeting the best way to accomplish these goals?
Even the best-run meeting can be a waste of time if it is not necessary in the first place. You might decide, based on the given situation, to invite some people for only part of the meeting, meet with participants one-on-one, or just send an e-mail asking for written input. Always keep in mind that your ultimate goal is to work for the success and best interests of the organization you serve. Meetings are not always the best answer.

Who owns the meeting?
The meeting facilitator is not always the owner of the meeting. The owner is often a line manager or executive who delegates the facilitation of the meeting to a team member or outside facilitator. Regardless of who facilitates, the meeting owner needs to approve the agenda, its processes, and participants. Failure to align with the owner in advance means you might be criticized publicly in the midst of your meeting, a situation you obviously want to avoid.

Who should be involved in planning this meeting?
Including key participants in planning your meetings provides better and more complete information and pays profound dividends in the meeting itself. This activity allows you to discover danger spots, problems, or any potential conflicts, as well as gain insights into better ways to accomplish tasks. It creates shared ownership of meeting goals and ultimately improves the likelihood of meeting success. This collaboration is especially critical in long meetings with large groups of people and meetings of special importance.

Often, for critical meetings such as strategy sessions, a formal planning team is assembled that includes the owner and other handpicked participants. The planning team meets in advance of the meeting to agree on the goals and processes and also gets together during breaks or lunch at the meeting itself to address issues or correct the meeting’s course as required.

What specific issues or agenda items need to be addressed?

What information needs to be gathered and disseminated before the meeting?

How should this information be gathered? And by whom?

Who needs to attend this meeting?
Of these people, does everyone need to attend the entire meeting?

How should the agenda be ordered to ensure that everyone’s time is used wisely?

What is the best date and location for the meeting?
With ongoing groups, plan the time and place of your next meetings at the end of the previous meeting whenever possible.

What correspondence/prework needs to be sent to the participants before the meeting?

What plans are required to ensure no interruptions happen to the meeting?
Some groups are notorious for having electronic or physical interruptions that diminish productivity. Plan ahead so you have a method to assure that there are no interruptions, except for emergencies.

2. Specific Agenda Item Questions
What is the overall purpose of each issue or agenda item?
Because this information will be transferred directly to your agenda, structure each issue or agenda item as a statement that clearly expresses both its subject and purpose. For example, “Tax report” only states the subject of the agenda item and is therefore potentially confusing. “Agree how to improve the tax report” much more clearly describes both the subject and purpose. Defining this purpose also provides the context for answering the following agenda item questions. Eliminate any issues/agenda items not worthy of meeting time.

How, specifically, will each issue or agenda item be accomplished?
Envision exactly how the meeting conversations will flow, what questions will need to be answered, and what problems might occur. Identify the substeps required to achieve each agenda item to an appropriate level of detail.

What are the most appropriate facilitation techniques for each substep?
Note that not every substep will require a specific technique. Sometimes, for example, simple group discussion will be adequate. Make sure that you are choosing techniques because they are the best techniques, not because they are the ones you feel most comfortable with or like the best.

What are the time requirements for each issue or agenda item?
Time requirements are based on the estimated time to complete each substep within an issue or agenda item. To accurately estimate meeting time, it is extremely important to break each agenda item down into its substeps for analysis. Visualize how the discussions, exercises, and techniques you have selected will transpire. Design the agenda in such a way that you can control the momentum yet be flexible enough to accommodate the inevitable timing errors in your agenda.

What handouts, overheads, and other visual aids need to be prepared?

Who should facilitate or present each issue or agenda item?
The meeting facilitator or meeting owner is not always the appropriate person to be responsible for the meeting or for each specific agenda item. Delegate and share responsibility as much as possible.

How should each issue or agenda item be introduced?
Determine what background information participants will need.

3. Logistical Questions
What room arrangements and other preparations are necessary?
___ Room
___ Charts and easels? How many?
___ Tables, chairs? (numbers and configurations)
___ Audio-visual equipment?
___ Computer use?
___ Microphones? Fixed or roving?
___ Video/audio links?
___ Translations?
___ Car parking?
___ Plants/flowers?
___ Music?
___ Travel arrangements?
___ Accessibility for participants with special needs?
___ Internet access?
___ Name tags/tents?
___ Accommodations for remote participants?
___ Other

Physical Environment
Communication experts state that nonverbal communication comprises 55 percent of the total message. If your physical environment is not conducive to productivity and creativity, the chances of your meeting accomplishing its goals are slim. Think about the difference in atmosphere between a greasy diner and a gourmet French restaurant. The moment you walk through the door you instantly get a feel for the type of meal you will have. The same is true when you walk into a meeting room.

Ensure that the physical environment for all your meetings is properly prepared. This doesn’t mean that your preparation has to be expensive. It simply means that you should make a conscientious effort to provide a meeting environment that feels good to both you and your participants.

Some people believe that windows distract participants from discussions and the agenda at hand. But, in fact, the opposite is true. Natural light can have a wonderful effect on energy and productivity. Whenever possible, open the shades. This creates a feeling of openness—for fresh air and fresh ideas.

A dull room can result in dull minds. Create as bright and energetic an atmosphere as possible. As appropriate, add life and color to your meeting rooms by hanging pictures and posters, or even attaching kites to the ceiling or walls. Display flip charts or project plans from previous meetings. You might bring in plants or flowers. Consider playing prerecorded music in the background before your meetings begin and during breaks. Balance your imagination with common sense for what is appropriate for your audience and your organizational culture.

Room Arrangement
Strive for a room arrangement that promotes discussion. Everyone should be able to have eye contact with everyone else. A meeting with auditorium-style seating nonverbally communicates to your participants that they are there for a lecture.

Whenever possible, use chairs that will be comfortable for many hours and will provide adequate ergonomic support.

Do your best to reserve a room where the participants can control the thermostat themselves. Participants who are too hot or too cold will not be able to focus on the meeting agenda.

What refreshments should be served?
___ Breakfast, lunch, snacks, dinner?
___ Special food requirements?
___ Catering?

It is often a good idea to include food and beverages in your meetings. Because sugar causes a quick energy high followed by a long crash, try to avoid it. If your group can’t resist doughnuts and brioches, be sure to include lighter foods such as fruit or muffins. Those participants on special diets will appreciate the options. If you plan to provide coffee, be sure to provide tea, water, and possibly soft drinks as well. Place the food and beverages near the door, on the table(s), or somewhere people will feel comfortable serving themselves during the meeting.

4. Reporting Questions
What level of documentation is necessary?
Determine ahead of time what level of detail the meeting notes will require. Some meeting groups will need a detailed record of all discussions while most will only want a record of decisions and next steps. Note that documenting decisions makes it easy to refer to them later if the group forgets what has already been decided or slips into the mistake of wanting to remake decisions that have already been taken.

What is the best way to arrange for meeting notes to be documented and distributed?
For key meetings, consider having an administrative assistant in the room to record the meeting highlights in real time. A laptop computer is the best method for minimizing effort and maximizing time effectiveness. If you don’t have someone in the room to help you in real time, take photos of flip charts or take the actual flip charts with you to type up. Note that you may want to save some of the flip charts for use in future meetings. Whichever method you choose, establish who will be responsible for the minutes at the beginning of the meeting or before the meeting begins. Gain agreement on the level of detail required.

Distribute the meeting notes as quickly as possible. Meeting follow-up loses momentum when there are no notes to quickly reinforce decisions and next steps. The meeting notes will make more sense and be far more valuable if delivered in or near real time. It should never take more than a few days to process and deliver them. Take the time to ensure that they are clear enough to make sense to you and the participants a few weeks after the meeting.

5. Evaluation Questions
What is the best way to evaluate the effectiveness of your meetings?
Evaluating your meetings is key to improvement and results.



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You will find my book Mission Critical Meetings: 81 Practical Facilitation Techniques on Amazon. Your feedback and reviews are most welcome.

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