When you imagine a company meeting, you probably picture the executives at the front – commanding all the attention and respect.
The minute-taker, meanwhile, is sitting at the side. They’re quietly and diligently working away, barely making a sound beyond the clicking of keys or the scratching of their pen. While others are speaking in booming voices, they are listening and writing.
This gives some people the false impression that taking minutes is a small role. It isn’t.
In fact, taking minutes is (a) extremely important for recording and communicating the outcomes of meetings and (b) not an easy thing to do.
Just ask my friend Tomas. This article is inspired by him. Because when he was asked to stand in for the usual minute-taker at his team meeting last week, he totally screwed it up. Afterwards his boss quietly took him to one side, and told him to get his act together.
Tomas was pretty embarrassed. Beforehand, he thought taking minutes was easy, and he just didn’t take the task seriously enough. He certainly didn't prepare in advance.
Then, during the actual meeting, he thought he was doing a reasonable job, even if he hated doing it. That hatred must have both shown and spilt over into the final notes. Hence his boss taking action.
Suddenly he wanted to know all about how to become better at minute-taking, and I was only too happy to share what I know.
Since you’re here, I’m guessing you’re in the same boat. You want to become better at taking minutes? You’ve come to the right place.
In this article, I’m going to tell you everything I told my friend Tomas. And by the end, you’ll know just what to do to be great at this most under-appreciated job.
Why are meeting minutes important?
Let’s start by dispelling any misconceptions you might have about minute-taking:
- The decisions taken in meetings are important, but it’s not easy to remember everything that happened. Minutes are an essential physical reference of your meeting outcomes.
- Meeting outcomes need to be shared with people who weren’t there, like shareholders and absent colleagues. Minutes are the best way to do that.
- In many cases, like meetings of UK company directors, taking minutes is a legal requirement.
In short, taking minutes is a vital task you need to undertake with care and skill. Let’s move on to 7 simple tips you can use to do it.
1. Take notes by hand, not on a laptopIf you’re a good typist, you might naturally assume taking a laptop into meetings is the best way to take minutes.
- Studies show writing by hand helps you remember more of what happened in the meeting – which is very helpful when you come to refine your minutes later.
- Writing by hand also helps you process and understand more of what happens in the meeting.
- Laptops can be a distraction, whereas using a pen and paper focuses you.
2. Use a template formUsing a template helps you organise your notes. It also keeps your minutes consistent across many meetings. And it’s always much easier to fill in a form than to start with a blank page.
You may find that your organisation already has a standard template that they use. Obviously, use that.
But if not, there are many that you can find online, so look through a few different ones to find one that may suit you.
If not, you can always design your own, If you do, here are some things to put in your template form:
- Company name
- Meeting date
- Meeting purpose
- Meeting chair or leader
- List of attendees
- List of absentees
- A table of agenda items with notes. Table columns might include a description of the agenda item, discussion notes, the action/decision taken, and the date for the outcome to be achieved by.
3. Don’t try to write everything downThere’s no way you can write down everything said by a room full of people. And that’s not even the purpose of taking minutes.
Trying to write down every word usually means you write down more, but actually absorb and understand less. So later, when trying to add flesh to the bones of what you have written, you recall very little else.
Your actual goal is to capture the key information such as:
- Agenda items
- Questions raised
- Decisions made
- Actions to be taken
- Persons responsible for actions
- Timeframes for actions
Focus on getting these details, not exact wording.
Don’t be too hard on yourself if you aren’t brilliant at this straight away. You will get better with practice.
4. Use these handy shortcutsOver time, you’ll probably develop your own ‘shorthand’ that lets you write more in less space. But for now, try using these common shortcuts to keep up with the pace of the meeting:
- Use abbreviations wherever possible, e.g. ‘TBD’ for ‘to be decided’, ‘w/o’ for ‘without’.
- You can also abbreviate long words by leaving out vowels or writing just the first few letters, e.g. ‘mgmt’ for ‘management’.
- Use initials when referring to attendees.
- Use symbols where appropriate, such as ‘&’ instead of ‘and’ or ‘>’ for ‘less than’.
- Create acronyms for common terms within your company, e.g. ‘CSD’ for Customer Services Department. Make sure these are unique and memorable, so you don’t confuse them later.
5. Type up your notes as soon as possibleRemember, taking notes is a two step process. What you take while in the meeting, and then post meeting, when you take your notes and flesh them out back into full details.
Type up your meeting notes straight after the meeting is possible, while the events are still in your short-term memory. The longer you leave it, the harder it will be to fill in the blanks.
6. Edit and improveThe purpose of meeting minutes is to have a document colleagues and stakeholders can use to learn what happened in the meeting. You need to make this document as concise and useful as possible.
Once you’ve typed up your notes, work on:
- Rewriting where needed to make the language as clear as possible
- Cut out extraneous details, leaving only the key information
- Using business language and correct English
7. Give participants an opportunity to reviewFinally, it’s a good idea to let all participants review the minutes before they’re signed off.
Firstly, because you may have got a detail wrong or misinterpreted something that was said. That’s ok – nobody’s perfect!
And secondly, it reminds everyone of the actions and deadlines that were set. And that’s just what meeting minutes are for!
And we’re done. You should be feeling a lot more confident about taking minutes now – and you might even have a new-found respect for the task.
I’m looking forward to hearing how my friend Tomas gets on with these tips the next time he’s asked to take minutes. And I hope you’ll share your own experiences in the comments, too.