Are you the lucky one who gets to write the minutes? Or, are you perhaps the baffled reader who wonders, “Are these the right minutes for the meeting I attended last week?”
With meetings taking more and more of our work time, concise, accurate records of important discussions, decisions, and action items are valuable work products. Increased legal scrutiny of company documents has made reliable meeting minutes essential.
And yet, taking good notes at meetings is an underrated skill. If assigned this task, you may never have had training in how to do it well. You must be able to grasp unfamiliar content quickly, listen objectively to sometimes unfocused discussions, extract the key points, and record them with lightning speed! You must be able to get inside your readers’ heads to know what they consider relevant and how much detail they need.
And what if you become overwhelmed when events race out of control, as speakers switch topics and interrupt each other or the facilitator fails to summarize conclusions and action items? Now it’s up to you (even though you’re just the note taker!) to have the skills to bring to light the facts you need.
But you’re not finished yet. After everyone else goes home, it’s now your job to convert this jumble of data into neatly formatted, easily retrievable content for readers with different interests.
A tall order!
Here are some tips to make this task easier and more rewarding for all:
Before the meeting
Gain some knowledge of the topics and readers instead of walking into the meeting cold. Invest a few moments in pre-meeting conversation with the person who called the meeting and possibly some major contributors. This step will allow you to prepare yourself and also ensure that your minutes reflect the original purpose of the meeting.
Be sure you have copies of the agenda, the minutes of the previous meeting, and any documents that attendees will have previewed. Also, find an electronic or paper meeting form that will remind you to record essential data.
During the meeting
Now the fun begins! Careful listening, fast typing or writing, and appropriate assertiveness are key skills for a note taker. Here are your key activities during the meeting:
• Tune in to main points, and tune out distractions.
• Be alert as topics shift among three stages: ideas, discussion, and decision. Listen for trigger words that signal topic changes.
• Remain neutral and objective.
• Limit each screen or page of notes to one topic only.
• Freewrite, abbreviate, and use bullet points.
• Fill in gaps and highlight during less intense moments.
• Use a screen section or the back of each page for additional notes on that same topic.
• Clarify vague points.
• Try not to allow the topic to pass until you have captured the details your readers will need.
Both paper and electronic templates exist to help you capture thorough minutes. Some people prefer steno pads and produce magic.
After the meeting
At this stage, two things will make your life easier: a reader-friendly meeting-minute template and good writing skills. Design or select a template that visually highlights the major interest areas of your readers. At a minimum, this template must clearly show fields for discussions, decisions, and action items, with dates and responsibilities. Once you have identified a good template, stick with it so readers will get used to it.
If you have learned to write clear and concise summaries, you will find meeting minutes an excellent opportunity to practice this skill. Write the key nuggets of information in brief bullets that everyone will understand the same way. Short sentences, active verbs, and parallel structure are critical writing skills, along with an abiding awareness of your readers.
Don’t forget to give meeting attendees and speakers a final opportunity for input before issuing the minutes. And wouldn’t it be nice if attendees feel good about how much the meeting accomplished when they see your minutes!