In meetings where there is no formal secretary, the convener will ask for a volunteer to take the minutes. Few, if any, hands will usually go up for this responsibility. It’s seen by some as a burdensome or perhaps undignified task. In fact, however, the minutes-taker has considerable power. In today’s fast-paced world, people go from one meeting to the next and their memories are short. Much of what happened in a meeting will be forgotten or hazy. Research shows that people who take notes–summarizing and interpreting what’s been said–are more likely to retain what they’ve heard. Minutes-takers not only will retain more information, they have a chance to capture what they would like remembered from the meeting. Of course, minutes-takers have to behave ethically. They can’t omit important points, decisions, or discussions, but they can highlight issues or perspectives that they feel strongly about.
1. Start with the goal of the meeting
At the top of the meeting minutes, put the goal (not just the name and/or date of the meeting). It’s easier to take minutes when you know what exactly you’re expected to accomplish in the meeting. If you’re not sure about the goal of the meeting, be sure to ask at the outset.
2. List who is present at the meeting
List everyone who attends. Be sure to get names of people you don’t know up front, since you’ll need their names as you record the meeting. If there are folks whose names you feel like you should know, but don’t, pass around an attendance sheet or ask everyone to create table tents with their names on them. Don’t forget to include anyone who’s attending the meeting remotely (via video or teleconference). And list those not in attendance. Review the meeting’s e-mail invitation afterward to make sure you got everybody.
3. Record the start time
By capturing the time start and date in the meeting minutes, you can begin to see if their is a systemic issue with timely starts and bring this concern to the participants after enough data is captured.
4. Capture key items
Taking meeting minutes is not like the 1960s movies where the secretary comes into the boardroom and sits quietly not participating in the meeting. You’re expected to contribute, so you can’t spend all your time capturing what’s been said. The key items you want to get down are:
- What is discussed
- What is decided
- What is accomplished
- What are the next steps/actions
For important discussions/debates, provide all perspectives (using an anchor chart or some other shorthand). If a decision was made, state it before describing how it came to pass. In today’s world of inattention, get to the point first then tell the story. The meeting minutes should not be a full transcript; they should just enough to trigger a recall of the meeting’s most significant actions.
It’s important to record not just what was decided, however, but how and by whom. Was the decision the result of a team vote, a consensus, or a “decider” who made the decision for the group? Oftentimes when an organization struggles, it looks for scapegoats to blame for certain outcomes. An accurate recording of the minutes helps ensure that individuals are not blamed for group decisions.
5. Describe the next steps/actions in detail
- What actions need to be taken? The actions must be specific so that when you or others look back at these minutes they know exactly what is expected.
- Who is responsible for each action? There should always be a DRI (Directly Responsible Individual), even if a team is assigned to work on the action. A DRI control the actions, drives it forward, and ensures it doesn’t fall between the cracks. That said, list all the team members participating in this action, not just the DRI.
- When is the action finished? Give the end state. Describe what will the measurable outcome(s) will be.
- What resources are needed? Too often actions are initiated and decisions are made without the necessary resources to complete the actions. This is a great way to slow down the organization. The way to speed it up is to determine the resources required and provide advance approval for the them if possible.
- When will the action commence and end? Often leaders become annoyed because they remember making a decision and then forget when they should be seeing progress. By both putting a start date and end date, it creates clarity for all meeting participants about what is expected.
- When will the DRI report back? Indicate whether the DRI will be reporting back at a future meeting or to a specific party.
- How should the DRI report Back? Some organizations will want formal presentations, others a small blurb in a weekly report. In order to satisfy all participants find out the form the reporting back to the team should take.
6. Don’t belittle or embarrass anyone
It is easy to forget that sarcasm is hurtful, and in the written form it can be easily misinterpreted by the readers. This is not the place to call people out or make others feel less than. Keep the minutes clean, upbeat, and professional.
7. Edit & proof the meeting minutes
“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of that which matters least,” said Aristotle. Typos and grammatical errors sometimes distract readers from what matters most. Check for errors, and also make sure the minutes are clear, crisp, and concise. Cut out anything that isn’t significant. If possible, have someone proof your minutes before you distribute them.
8. Send the minutes out ASAP
Timeliness is next to Godliness (or at least highly respected in organizational life). You should aim to get the minutes out within an hour of the meeting and at latest by the end of the day. By providing the feedback quickly, you will elevate the importance and urgency.
9. Attach relevant documents
Attach any handouts or documents electronically, so that all participants and non-participants have easy access to them.
10. Ask a question when distributing the minutes
When distributing meeting minutes, ask a question via e-mail to the participants, so that they will have to look at the minutes to respond. If you don’t ask a question, they will likely allow the email to be consumed by a flood of other equally important emails. You might ask if you got a particular point correct, or if you got the assignment correct for Mrs. Murphy.
Behance Action Journal
I use the action method for taking meeting minutes. My clients are always taking my notepads from me so I started selling them, otherwise I would never have meeting minutes myself. They are great! This product was developed by a friend of mine, Scott Belsky, who wrote the book Making Ideas Happen. You may want to pick up Scott’s book. You can find these notebooks on the CO2 Partners’ site or at Behance.