Minute Takingby Clare Forrest
If the meeting needed a verbatim record, it would employ a stenographer or use recording equipment. Minute taking is about recording the key, relevant points that have led to a decision.
There is no one ideal way to take notes. Each minute taker has to evolve a method that works for them. Only practice shows what works and makes the process easier.
The worst mistake is to note too much detail so that points get lost as you try to catch up.
Your notes will be in one way much shorter and, in another way, much fuller than the final minutes. Notes are shorter because they consist of key words and phrases only. They are fuller in content, because only after the meeting can you identify and select the points that really mattered. So, to be useful, the notes will contain a great deal that will not, in the end, appear in the minutes. However, with careful listening – and following the ‘Points not people’ mantra – it is possible to keep your notes brief.
Preparing to take notes
Being able to use shorthand is generally not helpful. Shorthand writers generally take down far too much and end up struggling to make sense of their notes because they weren’t listening to what was being said; they were translating it into shorthand.
It isn’t true that only someone from the same background can understand the meeting well enough to take minutes. Often, not being too involved means that the minute taker is able to stand back and take good notes.
On the other hand, it’s very difficult to take accurate notes if you are unfamiliar with what you’re hearing. Make sure you understand the agenda and take time to skim associated documents, such as minutes from previous meetings, related reports and so on. It’s often helpful to build a glossary of names and terms. A good glossary makes minute taking easier, faster and more accurate. If you’re not sure how a word sounds, ask someone who is.
Practise taking notes if you’ve not done this for a while. In particular, create abbreviations or symbols for words or names that will come up frequently in meetings you attend.
Study as least two sets of previous minutes if you are new to a particular meeting.
Read or re-read the agenda for the meeting. Especially, refresh your memory of all previous minutes for ‘matters arising’.
Discuss the meeting with the chair.
Practicalities for taking notes
You need a table so that you have a decent writing surface. If this really isn’t possible, then take a clipboard or a stiff-backed notebook and use two chairs – one for you and one for your paperwork.
Use A4 paper and start each item on a new page. This will make it much easier for you to collate your notes by allowing you to focus on one item at a time.
Take plenty of pens or pencils. It’s important that you take notes with a writing implement you like using.
Tips for taking notes
- Divide your paper into three columns as in this example.
- Head each section clearly, preferably in advance. Number all the pages you use so you won’t have a problem if they get mixed up.
- Write on every other line so that you can go back and add/delete things.
- Create a seating plan to show who’s where, especially if you’re not very familiar with people. Ask the chair to tell you who’s who as people arrive and label your plan accordingly. Refer to speakers by number in your notes, and match points to people when collating your notes.
- Use your own forms of shorthand and abbreviations – these are your notes for you to collate, so there are no wrongs or rights. It can be helpful to use symbols, capitals, arrows, colour and asterisks for emphasis, but don’t make it over-complicated. You want to focus on what’s going on during the meeting, not on which colour pen you should be using.
Points not people
The big mistake is to try to note down everything every person says. You won’t be able to do it; it will make you feel very stressed and it definitely won’t help you create a good set of minutes.
Keep listening, not for who’s saying what, but for the POINT that’s being made. If you’ve already recorded the point, you don’t need to record it again. Meeting members tend to repeat the same point many times.
Experienced minute takers spend most of their time listening and waiting for a new point to be made. In most meetings, people will talk a great deal, but add little that’s new. Even the longest discussions will rarely contain more than six or seven points. Sit back, look up, and listen.
What must you record precisely?
Listen for NOUNS (such as people, documents, places) and NUMBERS (such as dates, money).
Most points can be recorded in short note form. But, especially in formal meetings, there are some things you must note verbatim:
- All formal proposals and motions, with the names of proposers and seconders
- The numbers of votes for, votes against and abstentions to a proposal
- Figures, such as sums of money and dates
- Names of countries, companies, institutions and crucial documents (for example, acts of parliament).
Do make sure you
- Record who makes the main contributions
- Put people’s initials next to the follow-up points made
- Record the chair’s summaries
Use lulls in the discussion to review, clarify and expand your notes while the information is still in your short-term memory.
Most importantly, if you don’t understand something – ask.
Most of us aren’t used to writing with a pen or pencil any more. If that’s true of you, then you might find it easier to take notes on a laptop. If you do this, you can still use the tips given for written notes. Just make sure there’s a handy power socket – you don’t want to run out of battery.
Sometimes an inexperienced chair will try to ‘help’ you by suggesting that the meeting is recorded so that you can play it back when you write the minutes. This is only necessary when a verbatim record is needed, in which case a minute taker isn’t needed at all, just a competent audio typist. There are real disadvantages to recording and we do not advise this at all.
- Many people object to being recorded.
- The sound will not be clear.
- It’s very difficult to scan quickly later.
- The tape must be long enough to avoid tape-changing during the meeting.
And, as if all this wasn’t enough, why would you want to sit through the meeting twice?
Practising note taking
However much you’ve prepared, it can still feel daunting to take your first set of notes which will become minutes. Below are two great ways in which you can ease the pain.
- Take notes during a TV programme. You want something that has a number of different speakers addressing a variety of topics, but which focuses on one topic at a time. A panel discussion, such as Question Time, would be ideal.
- Ask someone who regularly takes minutes if you can shadow them. This way you can concentrate on the task, secure in the knowledge that your notes and minutes won’t be the real thing. And you’ll have something to compare your efforts against, so you may well find that your minutes are different, but just as useful.