The world seems awash with productivity hacks, and taking good meeting notes will make you a lot more productive at work. I’ve come to realise that it’s a key skill, and not one to leave to the most junior person in the room. You need to properly train the person that takes the meeting notes so that you have a good set that you can use to pass on what was missed to the people that weren’t there, and so that every action has an owner, a deadline and is clear about what the desired outcome is.
Developing the meeting note tips
I’m not the original author of notes on meeting notes, although I’ve kept and updated these notes based on almost thirty years of taking meeting notes. I got them from a very experienced senior civil servant in 2005, she’d collected them from predecessors and added/clarified them. Her mission was to pass on the skills needed to be a good public servant to as many people as possible. Early in my career I thought she was a cantankerous old person, now I completely understand. So my turn to share it.
It seems that there’s a particular skill in taking good notes in a meeting that can be useful for those that weren’t there. With many years of practice, and good use of technology, I’ve developed the ability to take good contemporaneous notes of meetings and email them to people as soon as the meeting ends. These work whether you are in the room with people, on zoom or Teams, or at the end of a phone line. So long as you can clearly hear everyone you can take good notes.
Notes on Meeting Notes
1. Think about the purpose of the note. Some possibilities:
- to record what was agreed and to note action points on those who were there. (Never use a meeting note to impose actions on people who weren’t present).
- to record the essence of a discussion for those who weren’t there
- to record the flavour of an important discussion for posterity
- to record differing positions on an issue
- to massage big egos
- to ensure that the record shows what should have been said (even if it wasn’t said very clearly)
- all of the above.
2. Never do verbatim notes, always summarise. When deciding what to include in the summary, you should only put in what is necessary, given the purpose of the meeting note.
3. Unless essential for the purpose of the meeting, (for example d) above, don’t attribute. If you do need to attribute, better to attribute to organisations rather than named individuals, but see e) above.
4. Traditional notes of meetings use the past tense and reported speech. Eg “the chair said that the purpose of the meeting was to exchange news and views. The Minister was going next month to see the project. No-one knew who would be accompanying him” Not “the chair said that the purpose of the meeting is to exchange news and views. The Minister is going….No-one knew who will be accompanying him”. i.e. you need to make sure that the note is self-explanatory and that there is enough context in the note so that a reader understands it.
5. Cabinet minutes demonstrate a good way of doing many notes. These take the form
“The Home Secretary, introducing the paper, said that the issue was x, there were y possible ways forward, of which he recommended ……. In discussion, the following points were made: Blah, blah More blah blah On the other hand, something completely different Summing up, the chairman said despite that problems set out by….., the consensus was that the way forward was ….”
6. Action points can be written in telegraphese and put in tabular form, provided that there is no need to record the discussion that lead to the action points. Actions should be specific about the intended outcome, who is responsible for achieving it and the deadline for doing so.