Just for the Record - Perfect Minute-Writing

Paul Pennant gives advice to anyone who works in an office on how to write minutes effectively and efficiently.

By Paul Pennant, Managing Director, indiquo


Nightmare on Lime Street
It's your boss on the phone: 'I'd like you to sit in on this budget meeting next week; could be useful - oh, and by the way - could you knock up an agenda and take the minutes? I'll need an actions summary out to everyone before the end of the day as well. Thanks'.

You put down the phone with a sinking heart. Yet another meeting - on a subject you thought was done and dusted. And now you've got to come up with an agenda that doesn't put everyone off by looking like 'The ten most boring things to do before you die'. Then you've got to sit through the meeting, which will be full of blah-blah about stuff you don't really understand and couldn't care less about - but still look really perky and interested.

To round things off, you've also got to produce meaningful minutes and get them out to all concerned the same day. The last one of these meetings went on until 5 o'clock and you were still trying to make sense of the minutes and type them up at 6, then you were late home, really exhausted, and found your partner in bed with someone else - you know, like that scene in Sliding Doors? Ok, I made that last bit up, but it felt like that kind of day, didn't it?

Sound horribly familiar? I know it does, because it's happened to me (including the last bit - oh alright, not really, but I got you going, didn't I) and I want to tell you there is a better way. I can't always help you enjoy meetings more, because the content is out of my hands, but it is possible to get a lot more out of them. It's also possible to manage meetings, even if you're not actually running them, so they don't drag on longer than necessary. Finally, it is possible to get out of the office sooner than expected, with your immaculate, crystal-clear minutes winging their way across the email system to all and sundry. Thanks to you, there will be no doubt in anyone's mind who's got to take what follow-up action and by when. Result: boss delighted. Your career: still right on course for the stratosphere

Keep it Simple, Keep it Real
Despite Galbraith's assertion that "Meetings are indispensable when you don't want to do anything", they do have a genuine purpose: bringing people together to make decisions and agree future actions. So, how do you take the fear and loathing out of managing meetings and taking minutes? Most people who come on our minute-writing courses are petrified at the thought of having to take minutes, but it doesn't have to be like that: simplicity is the key. Much of the time, it's fair to say that logging the decisions taken or actions to be followed up is enough and that's pretty straightforward. If it takes two hours to agree on a new coffee machine, there is no need to document the entire discussion! If an organisation feels it needs a verbatim record of a meeting, then perhaps it should be videoed!

On the other hand, if the subject was something sensitive, like staff reductions, then more detail would be appropriate. In the same spirit of keeping things simple, there is usually no need to name names in minutes, which after all are about collective responsibility and decision-making.

There's a New Kid in Town
Believe it or not, after the person chairing the meeting, the minute taker is the most important person present, by virtue of the importance of their role in recording what was discussed and decided accurately. If you are taking the minutes, then you have a right to speak out, in order to clarify a point you may not have heard clearly; it's in your own interests to do so. The days of the minute taker being a silent stenographer, at the mercy of a domineering chairman, should be long gone. And if they're still that way in your organisation, then you might need professional help!

To preserve anonymity - and emphasise the collective responsibility of the meeting - minutes should be written up in what is known grammatically as the passive voice, so rather than 'Ms Smith agreed to make funds available' it should be 'It was agreed that funds should be made available'.

Strange but true: troublemakers in meetings tend to sit opposite the chairman (male or female). These are confrontational types, so mark them and be ready to disarm them. If you have a good relationship with the person chairing the meeting, it will pay you dividends. Properly trained - by you - the meeting chairman will halt proceedings at your request and itemise key points to be recorded - remember: you're not a stenographer or a mind-reader, and if you're a PA, then you're not just a secretary, either!

Be Sure to Finish Your Homework
When you're putting things in place for the meeting: agenda, venue, refreshments, AV and so on, make sure you also block out some time to get the minutes written up afterwards. It might sound odd, but if you can find a place away from your desk, where you can use a PC without distraction, you'll find you can whip through the minutes and be out the door more or less on time for a change. By and large, companies get the minutes they deserve and if they don't support you when you're carrying out this important task, then they deserve the minutes they get!

Don't feel you've got to write down the whole meeting verbatim - most of your readers are busy people who only want to know one thing from your carefully-crafted minutes: 'What am I expected to do?'. Edit the minutes hard - right down to the bare essentials. You'll feel better about them, and so will everyone else.

No Hidden Agendas
Let's get explicit: most meeting agendas are woefully light on detail and the resulting meetings can be vague and wander off-track. Let attendees know exactly what's going to be covered and they will come better prepared and the meeting will be clearer, more productive - and shorter! If there's going to be a lot of technical jargon involved, why not get an expert colleague to help you make a short list of keywords, with their spellings and potted explanations, in advance of the meeting? The same goes for acronyms: the CEO of Xircom, manufacturer of PCMCIA cards for laptop computers, liked to joke that PCMCIA didn't really stand for Personal Computer Memory Card International Association, but 'People Can't Memorise Complex Industrial Acronyms'. How right he was!

Work the room: check the room layout before the meeting starts. You don't need to be a feng shui consultant, but making some simple changes to the layout of the room can help meetings go with a swing.

Sharper Minutes for a Sharper You
Effective minute writing is critical to every PA - and indeed anyone who works in an office. The economy of style and directness of thought that minute-writing dictates, applies equally well to all kinds of writing work, so ensuring your minute-writing skills are honed and polished will always stand you in good stead - and make you look good, too. With greater confidence in your abilities, you will change from being a passive observer and recorder of meetings, to an active and valued participant. And who knows, you might even start enjoying them?

Paul Pennant has been a highly-successful PA and Office Manager and is now Managing Director of indiquo. With a post-graduate degree in business studies, few if any trainers are better qualified to deliver and lead training workshops for today's PAs. In the past year, Paul has trained PAs from Selfridges, Rugby Football Union, Barclays Bank, Shell, AXA Insurance, ABN AMRO, Lehman Brothers and Carphone Warehouse.

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