Successful event agenda design is far more complex than filling one- and two-hour blocks of time. It requires industry-specific knowledge so your event offerings spark interest and engagement in the target industry. Your agenda can also benefit from an understanding of crowd flow and circadian rhythms—so that attendees have time to get from A to B and recharge. Read on for 16 tips sure to help you design an outstanding agenda for your next event.
Discover 16 ways to create the best event agenda design
1. Lockdown the event goal early
Knowing this will inform the design of your event agenda. Do you want attendees to leave with more industry knowledge than they came with? Workshops and small classes will make up the bulk of the schedule. Is networking the goal? Breakout sessions, ice-breaker activities, and networking gatherings are your focus. Is the event intended to build brand recognition and cachet? Schedule abundant time for the keynote speakers, Q&As, and meet-and-greets.
Meet with your company (or client’s) event team, marketing leads, and key decision-makers to nail this down.
2. Research engaging speakers early (followed quickly by outreach and finalized contracts)
Talk with your team about dream speakers, up-and-coming industry personalities, and niche workshop leaders. Rank top and second-tier choices and start to reach out to them immediately—conference speakers and thought leaders are in demand.
Online file storage makes it easy to store speakers and contract-status for quick reference, anywhere. Create an attendee list specifically for speakers and use tags to label the status (e.g., contract signed, no contract, undecided) and then sort the list by tags to keep an eye on progress. At a glance, you’ll see which speakers are finalized and which relationships need attention so you can design a conference agenda that wows.
3. Watch for local events that may interfere with your event schedule
Football games, dorm move-in days, annual music festivals—keep an eye on local events that may cause traffic jams or an influx of metro passengers on the day of your event. Plan for these disruptions and create the agenda accordingly.
Consider local traffic, as well: Look into rush hour trends, public transport schedules, and scheduled construction that may cause delays. Competing with train schedules may mean attendees must arrive early and wait around—or get there late and risk missing part of the program.
4. Tailor event start and end times to your target audience
Not every group wants to start bright and early, but some attendees may want to get to work earlier and get off the clock sooner. Consider the audience you’re reaching before blocking out time. Staggered start times may be an ideal solution to accommodate night owls and early birds alike.
Build enough time into the schedule for attendee check-in; it acts as a buffer against transportation woes and lets participants settle in without feeling rushed.
5. Touch base with speakers for the details you need for your event agenda design
How long does each session usually take? Don’t skimp on time or try to cram sessions into tiny windows. Attendees and the speakers suffer when forced to rush. Additionally, speakers must stay within their time allotment so attendees get scheduled breaks, and the next speakers don’t have to cut things short.
Keeping presenters on schedule presents its own set of challenges. Build a buffer into the schedule in case speakers go over to keep the schedule flowing, and follow these tips to prevent presenters from exceeding their allotted time:
- Make sure the speakers are aware of time restrictions.
- Have a set cutoff point, and let speakers know you’ll have to stick to it if they go over.
- Inform them of the signal they should watch for when time is short.
- Provide a timer or clock for the speaker, but also designate a moderator to keep time and offer a five- to ten-minute warning.
- Make a plan for long-winded speakers: If the presenter doesn’t notice the cues, you may need to walk toward the podium or take the stage and thank them.
6. Don’t over-stuff the agenda
A jam-packed agenda isn’t always a draw. Too many choices can lead to decision fatigue, or the drain of making decisions when presented with too many options. Attendees may be overwhelmed when narrowing down the choices—so provide a succinct schedule or create a multi-track agenda so attendees can view the most relevant options.
No matter what the schedule involves, satisfaction will vary. Some attendees will share high praise about their experience, while others may feel underwhelmed. Provide value and increase satisfaction for all: Offer content-based and experience-based sessions, use participation activities and hands-on workshops to increase engagement, and accommodate a range of learning styles and interests.
7. Gauge attendee interest with pre-event surveys
A pre-event survey can help you find what attendees value in a program so you can design your event agenda to suit. Having an active role in building the schedule adds value for some attendees.
Some questions you can ask:
- Which topics or speakers are you most interested in?
- What are you hoping to learn at this event?
- How are you most likely to spend your time between sessions?
- What are your goals for this event?
After the event, ask attendees to complete a post-event survey asking what was most valuable to them, where the agenda could use improvement, and what they’d like to see at the next event. This allows you to see which topics were popular, identify areas that need attention, and get a jump on the future event agendas.
Check this out: The Open Co-Op took a leap by leaving with a third of the conference program unscheduled—speakers pitched sessions, attendees cast votes, and the topics that came out on top were added to the schedule, creating an agenda that was uniquely relevant to the audience.
8. Keep the length of sessions in check
If sessions run too long, you risk losing engagement; too short, and attendees don’t feel like they’ve gotten enough out of it.
What is the best length for event sessions?
The ideal length of a session depends on the event type and industry, but some general guidelines can help inform most event schedules.
- Opening remarks or welcome speeches are usually less than 5 minutes long.
- Keynote speeches fill 60 to 90 minutes.
- Workshops and targeted training sessions may be scheduled for 60 to 120 minutes.
- Breakout sessions last between 30 to 60 minutes.
- Panel discussions typically last between 60 to 90 minutes.
- Symposiums and seminars are often single-day events with a wide range in program length.
9. Watch for overlap in the schedule
Avoid piling up sessions with a similar focus: Attendees may want to register for both Social Media: The Why, How, and When for New Businesses and Engaging the Community as a New Business Owner. If both are scheduled for 2 p.m. on Friday, attendees will have to choose between two tracks that would benefit them. While it may not be enough to discourage them from attending the conference, it may influence their overall opinion of the event.
When developing the schedule, tag each session with the topic, speaker, and target audience. Then, follow each track through the agenda to ensure tags don’t coincide.
10. Map space and transitions between sessions
When designing your event floor plan, add speakers and workshops to their assigned spaces to create a visual. At a glance, you’ll spot if speakers or attendees have to power-walk across campus for the next session. You’ll also catch double room bookings, or if you assigned a too-small room to a workshop involving physical activity.
11. Work Q&A sessions into the event agenda design
Don’t overlook the Q&A portion: Allow 25 percent of the scheduled time to open the floor to a question and answer session. Speakers and event staff should know when to start the Q&A so there’s no fumbling for microphones last-minute or an awkward silence after the speaker’s finish. Keep an eye on the audience during the Q&A—if people seem disinterested or there’s a lag between questions, it’s gone on too long.
12. Count on regular breaks to boost energy and participation
In addition to breaks for meals and refreshments, unstructured time between sessions allows attendees to catch up on email, visit the restroom, and prepare for the next round of activities.
Why provide breaks?
Benefits to downtime between sessions include:
- Networking opportunities (during lunch, at the refreshment table, in the lounge area).
- Stress levels are reduced when attendees don’t feel the need to rush.
- Movement increases attentiveness.
- Productivity earns a boost with downtime.
- Breaks improve the brain’s ability to learn and retain information.
- Presenters have time to set up without rushing.
- People can check messages and email so they’re focused and ready to begin the next session—rather than finishing emails during the presenter’s introduction.
What breaks are necessary?
There should be ample time for travel between sessions: Attendees can’t teleport from one place to another, so consider how long it will take to walk between locations, then add a cushion of ten minutes on top of that.
In addition to a significant lunch break, provide plenty of opportunity for refreshments and restroom breaks so that attendees aren’t distracted or hungry during presentations. If the event runs late into the evening, schedule a dinner break as well.
Improve the flow of large events with staggered lunch breaks or multiple locations for meals so lines don’t get overlong and chew up precious time.
How long should event breaks last?
Refreshment breaks and time between sessions should last a minimum of 15 minutes, but ideally 20 to 30 minutes. A lunch break of an hour and a half to two hours allows enough time to eat, network, and unwind.
Be mindful of distance: If attendees have to leave the building to find food or refreshments, increase break times.
Put downtime on the event schedule
Encourage attendees to take breaks—and make it clear that downtime is encouraged by providing this time within the agenda. Mindfulness exercises, yoga breaks, and non-work activities give attendees a sense of action—but help them unwind and take in more without burning out.
Remember, presenters need breaks, too
Speakers and presenters need time to prepare between sessions. Testing technology, preparing slides, distributing handouts, and arranging tables for group activities takes time—and multiple hands. Designate a staff member to help with logistics, and leave enough time between one session and the next so presenters don’t run late due to set up woes or other hold-ups. It’s not just about set up, either: Ensure there’s a buffer in the schedule for presenters to relax, eat, sit down, and unwind, too.
13. Build the circadian rhythm into the day’s activities
The afternoon slump can derail concentration: Combat brain fog with post-lunch physical activity and interactive sessions. Getting attendees moving after a meal can increase alertness and keep them energized. Offer an after-lunch walking tour of the venue, lead a low-impact group stretch, or reserve participatory workshops for the afternoon.
14. Understand the why and how of breakout sessions
What are breakout sessions?
Breakout sessions are facilitated, collaborative small group workshops or discussions with a targeted objective. These sessions often occur directly after a presentation to a large group. Participants split into smaller groups to brainstorm, learn, solve a problem, complete an activity, or discuss a specific topic. Afterward, the large group may reconvene for a presentation of the breakout session results.
Are breakout sessions beneficial?
Some events are better suited to breakout sessions than others. When facilitated properly and with an engaged audience, breakout workshops may produce lively discussions from involved participants. Determine if a breakout session benefits your event: Increased networking opportunities, experiential activities, or additional breaks may be better options.
For a more productive breakout session:
- Set clear objectives
- Appoint facilitators to guide each group without taking control
- Assign a notetaker to record a detailed account of the discussion
15. Make the agenda readily available so everyone’s on the same page
Keep your team in the loop
Provide your team access to the agenda—and ensure they’re aware of any changes as they happen. For team members who don’t need editing access, share a PDF file of the current timeline for easy reference.
Consider the best options for distributing the event agenda to attendees
- Add the schedule to the registration packet so there’s less to juggle at check-in
- Reduce paper waste: Include a schedule in the event app
- Provide a mobile-friendly, easy-to-read schedule on the event website
- Send the schedule ahead of time via email
- Decrease smartphone use: Print personalized agendas on the backs of name tags for easy reference, no screen necessary
PDF or online agendas have drawbacks: PDFs are difficult to view on phone screens, and online agendas may be a hassle on small displays as well. Instead, consider an in-app event schedule that allows each attendee to view a tailored timeline—and provides opportunities for data collection to inform future events.
16. Explore real-world and sample event agendas to inform your own
See how other experts are organizing their events by researching event websites. Check out major conferences in your industry and other industries to find inspiration. Are some events starting mid-week rather than on the weekend? Are pre-event networking sessions happening before the main conference? You may factor these observations into your event agenda design.
While industry trends are an important starting point, don’t be afraid to get creative—especially if your attendees are asking for something your competitors aren’t offering.
Explore this event agenda template for inspiration:
|Name||Location||Start Time||End Time|
|Registration & Refreshments||Hotel Lobby||8:00 AM||9:00 AM|
|Opening Remarks||Main Hall||9:00 AM||9:15 AM|
|Keynote Speech||Main Hall||9:15 AM||10:30 AM|
|Coffee Service||Hotel Lobby||10:30 AM||10:45 AM|
|Inclusive Events Breakout Workshop||Main Hall||10:45 AM||11:45 AM|
|Marketing for Introverts||Caledonia Hall||11:00 AM||12:00 AM|
|Event Profs Tell All: Industry Secrets You Need||George Hall||11:00 AM||12:15 PM|
|Staggered Lunch||Dining Room||11:45 AM||2:00 PM|
|Networking||Venue-wide||11:45 AM||1:45 PM|
|Drop-In Yoga||Venue Gym||11:45 AM||1:45 PM|
|30-Minute Flash Mentoring Sessions|
(Refer to Pre-Registration Confirmation for Time)
|Main Hall||11:45 AM||1:45 PM|
|Event Security: The Decade Ahead||Caledonia Hall||2:00 PM||3:00 PM|
|Making Yourself Heard in a Noisy Industry||George Hall||2:00 PM||3:00 PM|
Events Software and Increased Productivity
|Main Hall||2:00 PM||2:30 PM|
The Impact of Customer Referrals
|Main Hall||2:30 PM||3:00 PM|
|Coffee Service||Hotel Lobby||3:00 PM||3:15 PM|
|Full Group Breakout Session Creative VR Uses||Main Hall||3:15 PM||4:30 PM|
|Awards, Closing Remarks||Main Hall||4:30 PM||5:00 PM|
|Cocktail Hour & Networking||Main Hall||5:00 PM||6:00 PM|
Get started creating the best event agenda design
Include session names, rooms, speakers, start times, and end times to format a conference agenda. Use a sans-serif font to make it easy to read on mobile devices.
Try to keep your event agenda to basic, skiable information. Include session names, locations, speakers, start times, and end times to write an event agenda.
Give your attendees an experience they’ll remember (and share!) with an event schedule that perfectly balances engagement, productivity and downtime.