Meeting minutes, conference reports, action steps – whatever the assignment – here are a few tips participants in my workshops have found helpful:
- Always have an agenda
- Have a separate sheet of note-taking paper for each agenda item
- Use an alternate format that will allow each reader to get the information he or she needs, without having to wade through pages of notes
Let’s start with the first one – always have an agenda. Without an agenda, the meeting tends to fall apart quickly. The agenda can be as informal as a 1-2-3- list on a flip chart, white board, or PowerPoint; or as complex as a printed, formal agenda sent out with a meeting packet a week or more in advance of the meeting.
Whichever it is, when you know in advance what will be discussed, and in what order, you can prepare to take notes and organize the discussion of each agenda item at the same time, perhaps saving you the hours you might be spending now on organizing the notes that were taken in order of discussion.
You know what happens: the chair asks for a discussion on agenda item 1. There may be a bit of discussion on this item before one of the members says, “I have another meeting in 15 minutes. Could we discuss agenda item 3 before I have to leave?” And so it very well may go, leaving you with pages and pages of information to organize in the order they have been discussed.
So here’s what you do: Prepare separate note-taking sheets for each agenda item. If an agenda item is likely to be lengthy, and assuming you are taking notes by hand, you might staple two or three sheets of paper together to accommodate the discussion. If you are taking notes on a computer, prepare separate computer pages for each agenda item in advance, so you can place agenda items on the appropriate “page.”
Now when an agenda item is discussed out of sequence, there’s no problem. Simply enter the note on the appropriate note-taking page, and all the information you need on each subject will be gathered in the same place.
As for the format: For formal meeting minutes, most organizations have their own formats. At minimum the heading may include when and where the meeting was held, who was in attendance, and perhaps, who was not present. This information often appears as a first paragraph, and the heading may just be a simple title, e.g., “Minutes of the XYZ Committee Meeting Held October 22, 2013 in Sacramento, California.” Follow the practice of your organization.
For the body of the minutes, consider using the Log format. The log format can be easily adapted for a variety of uses – conference reports, meeting minutes, status reports, assignments, etc. This is an excellent format – probably the best – when you have a great quantity of information going to a number of people but not everyone needs to read everything.
By calling out the topic on the left-hand one-third of the page or screen, you will focus the reader’s attention so that the right person can quickly find, and read the right information. The discussion of each agenda item will be on the right-hand two-thirds of the page or screen. By thus directing each reader’s attention to the information he or she needs, you can significantly improve chances that the appropriate reader will read, and “get” the appropriate information, saving time all around.
As for content: Some organizations prefer detailed information on who said what or who took what position on the issue. Many organizations today, however, prefer a simple statement of the bottom line. What was decided, and how that decision was reached. For example, “Following discussion, the committee agreed that….” Or, “Following Joe Jones’s report (attached), and subsequent discussion of the issue, the committee voted to….” Again, follow the preference, and practice of your organization.