It’s a skill which few people have perfected; the perfect meeting minutes.
It’s a familiar story in an imperfect world. You’re working on a project of critical importance at work. This is an inter-departmental affair, with all the painful inter-departmental politics that comes with that. As the deadline looms with the project no closer to completion, you schedule a meeting with your colleagues. After setting an agenda for the meeting and two hours of tedious discussion, you end up with an agreed schedule and plan of action.
And then the agreed schedule isn’t met, and the agreed plan of action isn’t executed. You angrily call up your colleagues – “What the hell is going on over there? This isn’t what we agreed”. They’re adamant they they are doing what they promised. They’re convinced that you are the one who is wrong. And sadly, there’s nothing to dispute their version of events. You didn’t take any minutes.
Sadly, it’s one of the most vital skills needed for the modern workplace. They allow you to create an established record of events that are agreed upon by all parties, saving you headaches further down the line. Here’s how you take effective minutes in a meeting.
Don’t take minutes
It sounds counter-intuitive, right? This is an article about how to take effective minutes, and I’m saying that you shouldn’t take them? What madness is this?
It’s damn hard to do two things simultaneously. If you’re trying to keep track of a conversation whilst taking minutes, you’re likely going to do a bad job of at least one of those things. And remember how I said that minutes are supposed to be an accurate representation of events? They’re really something you shouldn’t mess up.
When you go into a meeting, you should bring someone in who isn’t going to be a participant in the conversation, and ask him or her to take minutes. That leaves you to focus on the conversation, and you can be assured that the meeting notes will be of good quality. If you’re taking part in an online meeting (perhaps using WebEx or Google Hangouts), why don’t you fire up Audacity and record the conversation for future reference?
Remember the 5 W’s
Think back to one of your English classes in Elementary school. You probably wrote a story at some point, and you were taught the “5 W’s” . To refresh your memory, they are ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘why’ and ‘where’ .
When you think of it, that’s what minutes are. They’re creating a narrative about something that happened, or something that will happen. And much like you would when composing a report or an article, you need to add detail.
So, where you might have something like this.
Upgrade WordPress to 3.7
You could have something like.
Ben Smith to upgrade WordPress to 3.7 next week for security patches.
Much more meaningful, yes?
… But don’t take it too far.
Nobody cares that Ben Smith is only upgrading WordPress 3.7 next week because this week he’s on vacation in Barbados with his wife and his two children, but his pet Chihuahua Gee-Fee is staying in the local kennels while they’re gone. Why would you put that in your notes?
Yes, it’s important to take note of all important details. Being explicit is super important. That said, don’t take it too far where you’re recording data that doesn’t benefit anyone.
Agree on the minutes
So, you have a three hour meeting. When it finishes, sticking about in the conference room is likely to be quite low on the list of things you would like to do. You’re tired. You’re thirsty. People are leaving the office and going home to warm beds and America’s Got Talent.
Do you head out? No! If you’ve handwritten your minutes, you go and laboriously type them up. Once you have them in a format which is vaguely useful, you email them to each attendee. You ask them to acknowledge that they’ve read the minutes and that they’re happy with the content.
That clarifies the role that each person has to hold, as well as their responsibilities, and if anyone has a disagreement with the official record of events, they can correct it. A collaborative meeting turns out better because of this.
Depending on who you ask, shorthand is either a really great way to write things down quickly, or it’s a form of encryption that’s resistant even to the prying eyes of the NSA. However you feel about it, it’s a useful skill to have in your notetaking arsenal.
Whilst quite intimidating to look at, shorthand isn’t too difficult to grok. It replaces common writing constructs with symbols and abbreviations, allowing you to write hundreds of words per minute. This is what Kim Fletcher, chairman of the National Council for the Training of Journalists has to say about it.
If you have a shorthand note you can find the quote very quickly. You go in with a tape recorder, or a digital recorder, and if you’ve spent an hour in there with your recorder you’ve got an hour of tape to go through, that takes quite a long time
There are many systems for writing shorthand, with the alphabetic-based systems (AlphaHand, etc) among the fastest whilst Gregg Pre-Anniversary, Gregg Anniversary, and New Era Pitman being the fastest of the bunch. Play around with a few and find one you like! I’ve found that this site is incredibly helpful in breaking down the differences between each of the many methodologies out there.
Structure Your Notes
When you’re taking notes, do you doodle a workflow, or do you go full-Buzzfeed and put it in a list? The effectiveness of your notes depends entirely on the way you structure the information you record.
Are you recording steps, or making notes of actions people will make in the future? Bullet points might be helpful here. Are you making detailed records about an event that previously took place? You might want to use a style that’s more paragraphical in nature.
Feeling arty? Another technique that you might find useful is visual note taking. Here, you add context to text by adding color, graphics and pictures. By adding illustrations, you can add extra information without making your notes too ‘word heavy’.
Finally, you’ll be glad to know that there are some tools out there that make structuring your notes a doddle. Microsoft has a bunch of Microsoft Word templates for taking minutes in a meeting. These wouldn’t look out of place in a stuffy, ‘shirt-and-tie’ workplace, but still have some splashes of color. I’ve also taken to using SimpleNote for my minutes, due to its clean aesthetics and its built-in cloud backups.
Taking down minutes is super simple, and it’s a strategic skill for holding effective meetings all of us should master . Do you have any handy hints for taking notes in meetings? Let me know in the comments below!