Yesterday, I spoke of the “less is more” philosophy, and the attributes of architect Mies van der Rohe’s work. Applying those attributes to our world, I invited Assistants to think of your minutes as radiating “the confidence, rationality, and elegance of their creator, free of ornamentation and excess …”
Once you make it past the chuckle of comparing your work to that of a great architect, let’s consider confidence, rationality and elegance as they relate to recording minutes.
Invest time in understanding context. Have you ever attended a meeting and wondered how on earth you would effectively record it when you didn’t understand half the acronyms and insiders’ language being used around the table, let alone the business context? I let this happen once in my early days and, after struggling through that endeavour, I developed an ever-evolving list of acronyms, and scoured everything I could put my hands on to better understand the business context. You won’t have all the insights overnight, nor should you expect that to be the case. If new to a role, though, invest time in reviewing at least the previous year’s meeting agendas and minutes so that you have some perspective before attending your first meeting. Carve out time to read the full agenda package rather than limiting your role to assembling and circulating it, and ask the Chair for some time in advance of the meeting so you can gain his or her insights where needed.
Less is more. Whether you’re recording meetings attended by colleagues or externals, be they paid or volunteer, you’re working with busy people. Increasingly, although verbatim minutes represent a past standard, busy professionals do not want or need their meetings recorded verbatim. Such people are typically seeking concise, clear records of meetings that reflect decisions made and actions taken.
Protect the innocent, the misunderstood and everyone else. Encourage participants’ sense of safety and confidence in their ability to actively participate by leaving their names out of it. Think about committee or volunteer council/board work you’ve undertaken; didn’t you want to feel safe in expressing your views without the potential for your remarks to come back and bite you, or your intent misinterpreted? Craft your minutes in a manner that provides that same confidence and security for those who attend the meetings you record. Whether or not your minutes are accessible through freedom of information legislation, consider the enhanced calibre of deliberations and debate that may be had when considerations are recorded without being attributed to individuals. In recording messaging or direction that is intended to be included in minutes, I reference “the committee” or “the board”, rather than individuals.
You have a voice. Use it, appropriately. Despite working with outstanding people, there are no doubt occasions when you find an individual’s voice quiet or unclear, or a plan muddy rather than lucid. Check and, if necessary, propose ground rules before you meet; you can do your best by your organisation if it’s understood that it is appropriate for you to speak up and seek clarity where needed.
Adjectives run amok, and assessment of effectiveness. Do your minutes read objectively? It was a Vice President who helped me on this front, when he cautioned that it was not my role to assess or categorize the nature or quality of a debate or presentation.This was one of the best pieces of minute-related advice I’ve received.
Check your work. Do any of your minutes depict “inspiring”, “intense”, “motivational”, “extraordinary”, “heated” (or other such) presentations, deliberations or debates? Such use of adjectives may be subjective, and represent the recorder’s interpretation (however accurate it may be) of tone. Do your minutes pronounce someone as having been “happy to advise …” or “proud to report” as a result of your perspective rather than the speaker’s words? Even if you were accurate in perceiving that someone was “anxiously seeking …”, do you think the speaker would appreciate this being preserved for prosperity?
Review your work for the use of words such as “very” or “thoroughly”, which imply your assessment of degree; that is not our intended function. It can be easy to slip into such modes, which are not appropriate; instead, the exceptional EA will retain focus on the reason we record minutes. In short, we are creating historic records of the business conducted during a meeting.
Focus on roles, not individuals. In preparing my minutes, I include participants’ names and roles on the first page; this is part of my standard formatting. Then, if it’s appropriate to reference a given presenter or participant, I reference that person by his or her role within the meeting. For example, rather than preparing minutes stating, “J. Smith invited expressions of interest in …”, I will write, “The Treasurer invited expressions of interest in …”. The advantages of this approach are twofold: your minutes reflect actions undertaken by a party in his or her professional capacity, and future readers of this historical record won’t be confused or distracted by trying to sort out context: “Who was this J. Smith of a decade ago, and by what authority did s/he undertake such actions?”
The same applies to you, and to your role as a recorder. Treat your meeting preparedness, and ability to understand and record meetings, in the context of your responsibility to the organization. Some of us may be reluctant to put ourselves forward with questions or recommendations, on the basis that we aren’t active committee / council / board members. If you consider such matters in the context of your obligation to the organisation and its need for clear, concise records, you may find yourself more comfortable exercising such initiative.
Tense. Consistently so. You are recording and presenting minutes of a meeting that has occurred, and so it’s appropriate to consistently refer to matters in the past tense. Again, “The Treasurer invited expressions of interest …”
Orderly resolutions. Do you invite your agenda contributors seeking a specific action to draft motions or resolutions for consideration by the body that is meeting? I do, and this provides clarity for meeting participants and supports focused deliberations. There will be occasional need to draft or amend a motion during the course of a meeting but, as a rule, my agendas contain proposed motions that I number for future reference. Then, in preparing the minutes, I can copy and paste the substance of the motion into the minutes.
Acronyms: don’t assume anything; you know that outcome. Remember, you’re preparing historical records. How can we expect someone reading our minutes a decade from now – perhaps our eventual successor one or two hires (two hires, and not one, because our employer may find that, while even exceptional EAs are not irreplacable, it can be difficult to replace us!) down the road, after we’ve won the lottery and left town – to understand unexplained acronyms after winding their way through run-on sentences such as this? Seriously, though, it’s not fair to assume that even current readers know the acronyms we live and breathe. While I do use acronyms in my minutes, I first present the full term and then the acronym in parentheses. Then, for subsequent references within the same agenda item, I do use solely the acronym.
Proofread for accuracy and clarity. You are exceptional, yes? Ensure your work reflects this. Where financial or techchnical information beyond your expertise is involved, invite your internal expert’s eye on the document.
Elegant; Free of Ornamentation and Excess
Consistency of presentation. Do you have one template for minutes, while colleagues reporting to others in your organization rely on their own templates? We all have our own sense of style, but consider the merits of collaborating to reflect a consistent style, and your organization’s standards.
A clean, easily read format. I remember being in my twenties and accommodating the needs of those, ahem, older people in their early forties who had difficulty reading materials prepared in a Times New Roman 12 font. Although I can still read such fonts, I now have even greater empathy and strive to prepare documents with templates that are clean, contain a good balance of white space and are easy on the eye. I include some of the key information on the header of each page, and the page numbers in the footer, and work to avoid lengthy paragraphs. We’ve all attended meetings where, for one reason or another, participants focused on one agenda item at various points in the agenda. Rather than recording each of these references to a specific topic independently of one another, summarize such deliberations in one section of the minutes – even if this means indicating something to the effect that, “The Committee addressed ‘x‘ under Item 5.2.”
Just the facts – the key facts, please. Hands up: How many of us have written minutes that contained much of the key information, but excluded one key element: the name of the company or organisation? It’s true; it may be easy for an Assistant to be focused on the department or sub-unit within an organization, and forget to include the name of the organizaiton itself. Compare this list of key inclusions to those contained in your minutes template.
- the company/organisation
- the committee/working group/board
- attendees; depending on protocols, you may separate this list by active participants / committee members and guests / observers
- those who have sent regrets
- the recorder – you!
DATES, TIMES AND LOCATIONS
- the date of the meeting and, if predetermined, that of the upcoming meeting
- the location of the meeting and, again where predetermined, that of the upcoming meeting
- the start and end times of the meeting and, again where predetermined, those of the upcoming meeting
SUMMARIES OF ACTION ON AGENDA ITEMS
- each of the agenda items contained in the original agenda, with the inclusion of any additional items added at the table
- for each agenda item, include concise summaries of debates and decisions, and the wording and outcome of resolutions / motions (more on those in a future blog!)