So you have been asked to take the minutes of a meeting? Here are some tips and techniques to do this effectively.
1. Before the meeting
If the meeting is one of a series, check the previous minutes for the format expected. Most professional minutes are now in ‘short-form’, with summaries of each agenda item and agreed actions only. However, some formal university committees, and many voluntary-sector organisations such as sports clubs, still use ‘long-form’ minutes, with full reports of committee discussions. Short-form minutes are much easier to write, and arguably more useful.
If the meeting is one of a series, and the previous minutes are in ‘long-form’, do check with the meeting chair that it is acceptable for you to write ‘short-form’ minutes only. At the same time, ask them if there are any particular issues you should be aware of during the meeting.
Make sure you have a copy of the previous minutes for reference; it will help when noting progress – or otherwise – on follow-up actions.
2. During the meeting
Start by making a list of attendees. If you don’t know them, pass around a blank sheet for them to write down their names, organisations and email addresses if appropriate. A good chairperson will ask them to introduce themselves in any case, but a written note will help you distinguish Alan from Allen, Catherine from Kathryn, and Thomson from Thompson for example, as well as letting you know how to spell unusual names. You should also note any ‘apologies for absence’.
There are different ways to make notes during the meeting. Some minute-writers just make notes on their own copy of the agenda. This may work for items without much discussion, perhaps those that just need a note that this has been ‘done’, or that ‘AB will follow this up and report to the next meeting’ for example.
With extensive discussions this approach can create very messy notes which are difficult to follow when writing up. So a separate sheet of paper – or a page-a-day diary or lab book – may be more suitable.
When making notes, use bullet points rather than full explanations. Keep an ear out for ‘soundbites’ or themes, particularly any that are used by the chairperson. Use initials to record the contributor – assuming you’ve checked that two people at the meeting don’t have the same initials.
At the end of each item, a good chairperson should summarise the discussion, noting any actions agreed and timescales. Not all chairs do this, so if you are unfortunate enough to work with one who doesn’t, do feel free to say something like ‘…just for the minutes, can I note that we’ve agreed X and Y and that AB will do Z by date T?’
If you have a chairperson who isn’t very good at keeping meetings on track, it is also acceptable to put a watch on the table and be seen to check it when appropriate. This works especially well if you are sitting next to the chairperson.
As minutes secretary, it may form part of your role to deal with interruptions during the meeting. With a bit of luck this will just be the arrival of the catering staff with the tea trolley. If the meeting is disturbed for other reasons, you may be able to have a brief discussion with the visitors outside the meeting room, only disturbing the chairperson and interrupting the meeting if absolutely necessary.
3. After the meeting
Do write the minutes soon after the meeting, preferably within 48 hours or so. You may well have other urgent work which encourages you to put this task on the back burner, but it is much easier to write minutes effectively whilst the meeting is still fresh in your mind.
And do write the minutes in positive rather than negative language. Avoid causing offence, or showing individuals in a bad light, if possible.
If the chairperson has said ‘..so-and-so hasn’t completed an action despite being asked several times’ this may be written as ‘..concern was expressed that this has not yet been completed…any specific reasons for the delay should be identified and overcome..’.
Similarly, an argument between departments over their respective responsibilities may be written as ‘..it was noted that some responsibilities had not been clearly allocated…...the chair stressed the importance of improving communication across the various departments involved in the project. AB and CD would work together to resolve this specific issue’.
Or someone saying ‘HR recruitment processes are too slow and bureaucratic’ can be worded as ‘..the meeting felt it was important to identify steps that could be taken to reduce the time taken to recruit project staff. AB will contact HR and report back to the next meeting..’.
Before distributing the minutes, do check whether or not the meeting chair would like to see them and suggest any changes they would like. Some will, some won’t; but do give him or her the choice.
And if you have an hour or so to spare, have a look in your university archives, find the minutes of early meetings of Senate, and see how many of the issues discussed are still concerns today. Do be aware that committee meetings aren’t always the best way to solve problems.