Minute taking – Writing tips
Ten tips to help those new to the job or wanting to smarten their skills.
1.) Prepare yourself
Reading the previous minutes beforehand will give you a flavour of the group, the subjects they discuss, and their recent decisions. You will also get abreast of important names, personalities and other details. It means that, come the meeting, you will already be in first or second gear rather than still in the starting blocks.
2.) What to write?
Your focus should be on minuting who has got to do what, and by when. Subject to what your chair and committee wants, be as brief as possible. Focus also on what is new, has changed, is major, and what will help people’s understanding … and exclude anything obvious. Yes, some judgement is involved.
3.) Improve your summarising skills
You can’t (and shouldn’t) take minutes of everything that is said in a meeting. So practice summarising discussions for example by listening to a news story on TV or radio, and then summarising it in a few sentences – as though you needed to tell your family or a friend. Another tip: it can be helpful to think backwards from a group’s decision/conclusion, and write up how they got there.
4.) A good note taking technique
Write each point that is made on a new line. Work down the page rather than writing right across the page, from left to right. If you do the latter it leads you to writing full sentences, which you won’t have time and don’t need to write.
5.) Use abbreviations to increase your speed
There won’t be the time to write sentences and words in full. Make up some abbreviations that you will remember later. We all have our own, but ‘D’ could be decided, ‘w8c’ could be wait and see / in the near future, ‘iwa’ it was agreed, ‘>>’ greater, ‘#’ not very good, etc. These short-hands will significantly speed you up.
6.) Vary your vocabulary
English language is rich with words, and minutes get dull if you always use the same words. For example, instead of always saying ‘said’, did the person actually query, remark, recount, report, question, or what?
7.) Resist this temptation
Don’t attribute who said what (i.e. ‘Mr Jones said that ….’). If you do, people you omitted to cite get annoyed you haven’t recorded what they said, and those you did may want edits to what you wrote. Also, there is then the danger that people just say things in order to get their name into the minutes. However, you should attribute things when someone has a strong difference of views to the overall discussion or decision.
8.) Passive tenses are OK in writing minutes
In general, good English advocates the active tense (e.g. ‘The elephants trampled on the grass’) over the passive (‘The grass was trampled on by the elephants’). The active results in shorter sentences, a more natural flow (subject – verb – object) and it identifies the doer clearly at the start of the sentence (which can be omitted in passives, e.g the sentence above could omit ‘by the elephants’). But in minute taking the passive is favoured for precisely this reason, as one shouldn’t minute/attribute endlessly who said what.
9.) Feel free to interrupt
It might sound strange, but you are the second most important person at the meeting, after the chair. Think about it. If minutes don’t get written, people won’t remember (or will disagree) what was agreed; those present won’t know at all; and people will forget what they agreed/have to do. So don’t undervalue your importance at the meeting. Feel free to interrupt when necessary, asking for example: ‘What does that refer to?’, ‘Can someone explain that to me afterwards?’ or ‘How shall I minute that?’
10.) Write up your minutes soon
You will remember a lot more details about things said and decided at the meeting than you probably managed to get written down. But your memory will forget some of these details as time goes by, so write up your minutes as soon after the meeting as possible.