Structuring your event’s agenda might be the most important part of planning your event. No matter what your content, the way you pull it together in an agenda can have a big impact on your success.

We’ve produced hundreds of events over the last decade, and we’ve learned a lot about agenda effectiveness. We’ve learned a lot about content effectiveness, too, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. This post is more ‘meta.’ It’s about the way you allow your content (whatever it might be) to unfold throughout the day. In other words, it’s about your agenda.

Here are five tips for making it work as hard for you as possible:

1.Your agenda wears two hats. Know them.

Your agenda works harder than just about any other aspect of your event. It’s got two critical roles to fill, one in the lead-up to your event, and one during the event itself.

Before your event, your agenda is your most powerful promotional tool. It will be the critical factor in many, if not most, registration decisions. Attendees expect to receive two kinds of value from any event they attend. They want to learn, and they want to connect. Of these two desires, you can only address one of them (concretely) in advance. Potential networking value can be a tough sell. Content and learning opportunities are much easier to demonstrate. Through your agenda.

For this reason, it’s critical to complete your agenda early. Nail it down, and include it in every promotional activity. A strong agenda, produced early, can be your best salesperson.

During your event, your agenda is the roadmap to the experience you’re creating. Your agenda must make it easy to realize the value you’re providing. No matter how strong your content is, you’re in trouble if your attendees can’t consume it easily.

A primary goal of any event is (or should be) to motivate attendees to come back next year. You want them to tell their friends about your event as well. If your agenda creates a painless event experience, you’ve got a leg up in making that happen. And if your agenda makes your content and networking hard to consume, well…

2.The best speakers get the best spots

As you’re planning your event, it should be clear who your best speakers will be. Your best speakers are the ones with the biggest name recognition, the most universally-appealing topic, or the most experience speaking at events. They’re the ones you worked the hardest to get. You know who they are. And if you don’t, take a close look at the materials your speakers submit in advance. The cream will to rise to the top quickly.

Schedule these speakers to make the biggest impact at your event. In almost every case, that means scheduling them at the beginning of the day, when your attendees are fresh and focused. You should limit or eliminate competing sessions as well. And whatever you do, don’t slot your speakers right after lunch. People will straggle in late, and all the energy and attention from the early morning will be gone.

3.Content-networking balance matters a lot

To repeat from above, most attendees are looking to receive two types of value from your event. They want to learn from good content, and they want to connect with their peers. An effective agenda recognizes both of these desires and makes enough room in the day to meet each of them fully.

There’s more to finding the right content-networking balance than just sprinkling a few content-free slots throughout the day. You have to think about how people do their best networking as well. We think we’ve gotten pretty good at this in our events. Here’s what we do:

Schedule a longer lunch period. We give attendees a full hour and a half. People like to connect over meals. They don’t want to feel rushed. Scheduling a longer lunch period can allow this to happen.

Open earlier for the day. If your first session is at 9:00, open for registration and a continental breakfast at 7:30. The benefits are the same as for scheduling a longer lunch.

Other than that, keep food out of the way. If you schedule morning and afternoon networking breaks (and you should), provide beverages but no snacks. Snacking on your feet is very different from sharing a meal. It’s tough to make a connection when you’re holding a paper plate and focusing at least some of your attention on that. When you ask people to stand, eat, and talk at the same time, one of those three things isn’t going to happen.

4.Avoid the panel-discussion crutch

We’ve all been to events where each day ends with a long panel discussion. The panelists are often individual speakers from elsewhere in the agenda. Let’s face it: it’s easy to fill out an agenda by repurposing the speakers you’ve already got. It’s easy, but it’s also a bad idea.

Even the best speakers, when put together, naturally seek common ground. They dilute their own expertise. It’s like a law of agenda-planning physics: panel discussions yield lowest-common-denominator content. They’re satisfying to no one.

Furthermore, panel discussions dilute the value your best speakers can provide on their own. Who’s interested in tomorrow morning’s keynote when they already saw the speaker say not-much-interesting in a panel discussion this afternoon? And don’t forget the promotional hat your agenda wears. When a prospective attendee looks at your agenda and sees names repeated several times, it creates an impression of thin content. That can put a real damper on your rate of registration.

5.Run on time

Our last tip is so basic it almost should go without saying. At the most basic level, the whole point of an agenda is to keep the day moving on time. So in light of that, let’s amend the headline. Our last tip is really about making sure you allow yourself to run on time.

To do that, there are a few simple rules. Ask your speakers to prepare to speak for 65-70% of their allotted time. Discourage them from going shorter or longer than this. You’re trying to create the right amount of “slack” in your sessions. Session “slack” inoculates you against late starts due to attendee punctuality or technical issues. It ensures time for meaningful Q&A. Always review your speakers’ material with session slack in mind. 65-70% speaking time: no more, and no less.

Even if your agenda doesn’t involve multiple “tracks,” think about the different types of attendees you’ll attract. Can you “cluster” them around certain content interests? If so, keep content that appeals to each attendee cluster in close physical proximity. This will help cut the time an average attendee needs to move between sessions.

And speaking of time to move between sessions, how much between-session time should you allow in general? The actual answer to that question is a function of the size, complexity, and physical layout of your event. But the rule of thumb we’ve settled on here is simple. Figure out the amount of between-session time you think you need. Then, double it. Even if you overdo it, the worst case scenario is that you’ve created more windows for networking. Think about that: the worst-case scenario will increase attendee’s perception of your event’s value. Allow plenty of time between sessions. It will serve you well.

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