Minutes or notes? Why and how to create a meeting record

Chances are you are either preparing for or participating in a meeting right now. A study of 15,000 professionals between February 2020 and October 2021 found meetings increased almost 70%, occupying half of their work week. While some professionals have returned to the office, many are still working remotely at least some of the time.

The toll of so many meetings led a few companies to help employees by instituting no-meeting days. But most of us are still searching for productivity hacks so we can get our work done while also attending meetings. In this post, you’ll learn why to create a record of meetings and how to create one that supports those goals.

Why create a written record of meetings?

Some organizations create written records of meetings for legal reasons. These are usually the groups of people (boards, trustees, directors, etc.) who make decisions at corporations like Walmart and non-profits like Salvation Army. Many additional groups create records of meetings. Indeed lists three non-legal reasons:

  • Provide structure: Facts, decisions, votes taken, conflicts, attendees and other important details can be retrieved if needed.
  • Measure progress: Meeting minutes can serve as a timeline of progress on projects, efficacy of decisions, and effectiveness of team members in terms of action steps.
  • Determine ownership: Minutes record votes, owners of tasks and decisions.

How do you record notes during a meeting?

Guidance based on research into the oral and non-verbal aspects of business meetings is plentiful. But my search for guidance on written records for business meetings has uncovered advice and anecdotes but nothing based on more careful study. So I’m sharing my own experience here.

Taking notes during a meeting is much easier if there’s an agenda and discussion follows it. The agenda contains important items beyond the obvious like the meeting location: (a) what participants are supposed to do before the meeting, (b) where participants can find resources they need to prepare for the meeting, and (c) estimates of time allocated for each topic on the agenda.

The first page of notes taken during a meeting I attended are shown below within the topics that appeared on the agenda.  I want you to view the long laundry list of bullet items under the heading “Measures” in the middle of the page.

A sample of notes from a meeting.

Those notes under “Measures” represent a chronological recording of the discussion. That’s all the note-taker could create during the meeting. An amateur would simply call them the meeting minutes, send them out, and call it quits.

But a pro knows better. After the meeting, a pro edits the notes into a document that captures the discussion in way that can be understood by someone who wasn’t there. Or someone who can’t remember where they put their keys last night.

Can’t technology take care of this?

There are tools that can transcribe meetings for you. Read about nine free options. Sounds like the answer to all of our productivity challenges, right?

The power of tools like Otter.ai for transcription is a given. But, as some meeting experts put it,

…leaders should make it routine to keep track of what was said — and what was meant — and to share those summaries with attendees and any relevant stakeholders who weren’t present. The point is not to capture a full play-by-play of the meeting, but rather to provide a concise synopsis of the key points and action items in a format that makes the information as accessible as possible.

Ashley Whillans, Dave Feldman, and Damian Wisniewski (Nov. 12, 2021) “The Psychology Behind Meeting Overload,” Harvard Business Review

Sadly, no one can find information efficiently in a transcript. Unedited notes are not meaningful to anyone other than the note-taker. And only briefly for him or her.

That means someone has to create minutes, which capture the meeting discussion and decisions in an efficient way for those who need to review them later. You can create minutes using notes you take or a transcript of the meeting. It’s up to you.

How do you create minutes after a meeting?

The relevant portion of the meeting minutes created from the unedited notes is shown below.

The minutes include several important revisions designed to inform the future readers more effectively and efficiently about the meeting:

  1. The minutes are organized by topic not chronology. Only three major bullet points appear under “Measures” now. Several of the bullets from the notes were combined, and several were moved out of this heading because they represented discussion that happened while we discussed measures but which were about topics covered elsewhere in the meeting (e.g., results).
  2. The style of the minutes focuses on meeting actions. Each major bullet point under “Measures” now begins with a past tense verb.
    • “Noted” is used to describe topics mentioned, usually by the meeting chair, but not discussed.
    • “Discussed,” on the other hand, denotes topics about which there was conversation.
    • Elsewhere in the minutes, there are items beginning with “Decided” to denote decisions made by the participants during the meeting.
  3. The style of the minutes focuses on topics not people. There are no participant names in the bullet items under “Measures” because their identities are not important to the purpose of the meeting or the audience of the minutes. For this reason, others have mentioned that passive voice is useful in meeting minutes. Because participants in business meetings represent their work unit (or organization) and those units’ views are sometimes important both to capture and attribute, I might write something like: “Discussed IBA faculty’s concerns about locating individual measures of performance.”  But the emphasis is still on the topic — not the people.

Note: the portion of the minutes I’ve shown you doesn’t include the all-important “Action Items” arising from the meeting. That was probably the section of most interest to participants in this case.

What else should you know?

After I created the minutes, I shared them — not the notes — with the meeting participants to invite their corrections or approval (as protocol demands). The corrected minutes were placed on the organization’s intranet where anyone could review them.

Here are my last words on the subject.

No matter how quickly you can record a meeting, notes and transcripts are worthless if the minutes are not written by a pro who creates a record that future readers can actually use.

Dr. Kim

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