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How to Avoid an Overstuffed Agenda

How to Avoid an Overstuffed AgendaWhat follows is a confession. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s true.

After 20-plus years of facilitation and training, my time management skills still need some work.

Perhaps you have the same problem. Maybe you’re designing a workshop, planning a meeting, or putting together a webinar—and if you’re like me, you have a strong impulse to include EVERYTHING.

There’s never enough time for everything. Give me a full day with any group, and I can generate three days of content. This can be a problem.

When you overstuff, everyone suffers

How many times have you watched a presenter racing through a slide deck, trying to cover too much material?

How effective was that?

What about the too-many-awards luncheon with the endless speeches? Admit it—halfway through, you started looking at your phone, didn’t you?

When you try to do too much, you reduce your impact. The old cliché—less is more—definitely applies when you’re working with groups.

Step 1: What’s your goal?

What do you want to accomplish? As you clarify your goal, calibrate it to the available time.

  • If you’re designing a half-day fundraising training, your goal is to help people master a few specific tools, not the entire toolbox.
  • If you’re building the agenda for a 90-minute board meeting, focus on problem solving and decision making—for a few important problems and decisions.
  • Facilitating a day-long planning retreat? You can’t create a strategic plan in a day, but you can develop an outline of the plan – with the understanding that someone will be tasked with lots of work before and after the retreat.

Once you clearly articulate your goal, it’s much easier to prioritize the content.

Step 2: Chunk out the time

Create a broad framework for using the available time. For example,

9:00–10:30   Intros and learning content
10:30–10:45  Break
10:45–12:15   Content
12:15–1:00     Lunch

Step 3: Define your topics and activities

What topics do you want to cover to achieve your goal?

How will you engage your participants?

Here’s a hint: Use your material to create hands-on activities and exercises, because people learn best by doing stuff.

Step 4: Sequence the components

Take your best ideas and sequence them into a draft design, keeping your goal in mind.

Sequencing requires some trial and error. After years of using certain exercises, I still shuffle them around, looking for greater impact. Don’t expect perfection, especially the first time. Test, evaluate, and adapt.

Once you have the sequence, estimate the time needed for each topic an activity. As a general rule, the larger the group, the more time required. If you’re using training exercises from our book, we’ve included the time required for each one.

Everything takes longer than you think. My rule: Estimate first, then add 25-50 percent more time. Your 20-minute activity could easily take 30 minutes, especially if it generates useful digressions.

Step 5: Save the best, trim the rest

Add up the time required for everything on your list. You’ll likely have more material than time. In deciding what to keep, consider the following:

  • Choose a mix of activities: lecture, small group conversations, problem solving, role plays, writing, and so forth. Keep switching it up.
  • Devote at least 50 percent of the time to exercises and hands-on work, rather than listening to the facilitator or watching slides.
  • Design the sequence so that each section builds on the previous ones.

As you allocate time, assume a late start—because life is like that—and include breaks. (Sorry, there is no such thing as a 5-minute break.)

Managing time is your job, not the group’s job

One final note: I often track time on my facilitator’s agenda—especially with new material—but generally don’t include times on public agendas, other than the event’s start, end, and perhaps breaks.

Why? I don’t want people looking at the clock, wondering why we aren’t following the schedule. I appreciate the freedom to pursue interesting side routes and go where the group needs to go.

In a well-run workshop or meeting, you can sense that the facilitator is managing time effectively without knowing, minute by minute, how much time has been allocated for each portion of the agenda.

How to Avoid an Overstuffed AgendaThe preceding is a cross-post by Andy Robinson from the Train Your Board blog. For 34 years, Andy has worked with a variety of nonprofits as a fundraiser, facilitator, trainer, and community organizer. As fundraising consultant, he's provided support and training to thousands of nonprofit staff and volunteer leaders in 47 U.S. states and across Canada. Andy specializes in the needs of organizations working for human rights, social justice, artistic expression, environmental conservation, and community development. To learn more, visit

Topics: Meeting facilitation