How to be ready for every conversation

Monday, November 1st, 2010
cross-eyed-girl-post-it-forehead.jpg Many people are familiar with creating with agendas for formal meetings, but what about informal meetings? What about personal conversations?

Consider this: Ever sat down for an informal meeting and suddenly forgot what you wanted to discuss? Not a lot of fun, not to mention potentially stressful.

Equally frustrating is when you walk away from a conversation and get that nagging feeling that important topics were missed.

You don't have to do this to yourself.

Next time, write down your topics ahead of time. You'll be amazed at how much better you feel and at how much more efficient meetings are when you can march down a list of topics, confident that everything needing discussion is on that list.

It's time to eliminate "I'm glad I remembered that" from your vocabulary. You don't need to remember if it's written down.

Here are pointers I've found about creating and maintaining informal agendas.

Keep a running agenda list for people you regularly interact with

These people are probably coworkers, family, and close friends. You communicate with them all the time and there's usually plenty of things needing discussing.

However you create your list (more on that in moment), organize your list according to the person's name. This way, all the items you need to discuss with that person are grouped together.

Then when you see one of these people, you can glance at your list and see all outstanding items that pertains to him or her. In that moment you can make the decision about what's important to talk about now and what should be deferred for later.

What's critical - and here's the key benefit - is that you didn't have to remember what to talk about in that moment (and you didn't have to stress about forgetting something). You just had to decide in the moment about what items to act on now and what to defer. That's productive and relieves a lot of stress.

Creating your list

I'll show how this looks in regular Lotus Notes and in eProductivity (my personal system). But the principles apply for any digital or paper system that you use.

1. Constant capture

First, I'm constantly capturing agenda items whenever the thought strikes me. By capture I mean I write the item down on a sticky note, or make a memo on my phone, write it on my hand, or whatever. The point is, whenever I think of something I need to discuss with another person, I capture it somewhere as fast as possible. That way, later on I don't have to rack my brain trying to remember.

2. Process into your system
I then take my written reminders and turn them into agenda items in my system.

When creating the items, I follow a few simple rules:
- Put the name of the person first. For example: "John - Discuss XYZ article".
- Use a consistent naming scheme. For instance, because I discuss with my boss all the time, I just use his first name e.g. "Eric - ....". For other people that I talk to more infrequently, I'll generally use both their first and last name.

I then file the items in an "Agenda" category.

A really nice aspect of digital systems is that if you use a consistent naming scheme (see rule #2 above), related items will be grouped together. For instance, all my agenda items that start with "Eric - ..." will be grouped together. This makes for easy list scanning.

Here's an example of my agenda list in regular Lotus Notes.

Notes 8 Agenda example

And here's an example from my eProductivity system. eProductivity is really nice because it provides a dedicated Agenda category and allows me to visually break out my list by name, making for easier list scanning.

My agenda list in eProductivity

It's also great that I can sync my lists to my BlackBerry Torch so that I can view and create agenda items on the go.

When a conversation happens, wherever it happens, with my list in hand I can march through any needed discussion points and mark them complete as I go. Then I have more time for fun and creative communication!

The more I practice writing down agenda items, the more natural the habit becomes. Even better, I feel increasingly relaxed and engaged during meetings and conversations.

Guest post by Ryan Heathers

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