Recently someone complimented me in an unusual way: “You have the best meeting agendas,” they said.

I hadn’t ever thought about it because the only thing I ever evaluate is the outcome of my meetings–whether people are engaged, the discussion is productive, and we end on time. Nothing is worse than a meeting with no agenda where the meeting organizer starts with “Well, what should we talk about today?”

“Good meetings” are valuable to the participants, productive, and respectful of everyone’s time. A good agenda is a great way to make sure this happens. Busy people like road maps, particularly road maps that show how their time will be used. A well written agenda sets expectations and helps you to meet them. People feel good when their time is respected and their expectations are met.

A great way to respect people’s time is to make the agenda informative and succinct—a “Cliff’s Notes” version of the meeting to come—the background plot with some possible outcomes. Some good ways to do this are:

1) Each topic with a main heading followed by a series of short bullets explaining what needs to be discussed and decided preceded by a few high-level background bullets explaining the previous history or discussion.

2) Add the person’s name who will speak to or lead the discussion in the topic heading. This honors the expertise in the room and lets the meeting belong to everyone.

3) Honor people’s time by adding proposed times to each meeting topic. This helps to guide the meeting and set expectations about how much time will be spent on each topic. It also makes the agenda a nice scapegoat if the meeting gets off track or runs off the rails… something easily corrected with a suggestion like,

I’m noticing the time. We’ve just spent twice as much time as the agenda specified. If we would like to finish this meeting on time we should reschedule this topic for discussion at our next meeting or agree now which other topics we should drop from today’s agenda.

I like to send agendas out to all attendees no earlier than two days before a meeting and no closer than 24 hours before the meeting starts. It seems that any farther in advance and most people will put off reading it until the last minute, if at all. And if people get it too close to the meeting time they don’t have a chance to read it or prepare their thoughts.

Try these things out and you might be surprised how much better, and more productive, your meetings are.