A note for those of you reading this article in the 2020s: I wrote this article back in April 2014. While I’ve since updated the photo accompanying it, the principles hold strong in this decade.
Less is More
In an earlier post, 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 encouraged assistants to think of your minutes as radiating “the confidence, rationality, and elegance of their creator, free of ornamentation and excess…”
I imagine that few of us approach the preparation of minutes with words such as elegance in mind, but why not? Hands up, please, if you’ve ever had occasion to review minutes of months or even years past – your work, or someone else’s – to clarify historical information or decision making.
While recording styles have evolved with time, and we may even cringe at the thought of some of our earlier representations of meetings, it’s readily apparent when an organisation has benefitted from an effective recorder. By effective, I mean someone who has the confidence to apply a rational approach to understanding and documenting those matters that should be recorded for prosperity, and capacity to understand what is superfluous. The exceptional assistant does all this with not only elegance, but also a clear understanding of the purpose of the document.
So, while recording and preparation of meeting minutes may be seen by some assistants as a necessary evil, try approaching it from the perspectives of how the core principles of confidence, rationality and even elegance apply to your minutes.
Accrue knowledge and build your confidence
- 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. You should, however, make developing such insights a priority.
- If you’re new in your role, 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, actions taken and commitments made.
Attribution: record in a manner that supports participation
The quality of your recording has significant impact on participants’ sense of safety and confidence in their capacity to actively participate without being penalized by unwanted or inappropriate attributions within the minutes. In other words, protect the innocent, the misunderstood, those prone to protracted explanations, and everyone else.
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 participate in the meetings you record.
Whether or not your minutes are accessible through freedom of information, “sunshine” or other 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 tend to reference “committee members” or “the board”, rather than individuals.
You have a voice; use it
Speak up and reach out to resolve matters that adversely impact your capacity to produce solid minutes. Despite working with outstanding people, there are no doubt occasions when you find an individual’s voice quiet or unclear, or a plan muddied rather than lucid.
- If it’s not just a matter of your hearing capacity, and you’re having difficulty hearing a low talker, chances are that others are experiencing the same challenge. Some assistants may decide to seat a quiet speaker close by so that they may be more readily heard and recorded. You may do all involved a professional courtesy by constructively and graciously approaching the quiet person and encouraging him/her to speak with more volume.
- Wherever possible, prepare or secure the wording of motions in advance, and include them in your agendas. Discussion can be more focused when people begin with an understanding of the intended goal. Sometimes, discussions and motions move at a rapid pace during meetings. If discussion and debate unfold at a rapid pace and direction is unclear, you perform best if you are prepared to seek clarity.
- Does your organisation/boss want you to have voice during meetings? If so, do the other participants understand this, or might they view your voice at the table as inappropriate? Check and, if necessary, seek a shared understanding; you can do your best by your organisation if all participants are aware that it is appropriate for you to speak up and seek clarity as needed.
Objectivity is key
Keep these guidelines in mind, and you’ll do both your organisation and your own reputation proud.
- Adjectives run amok; assess effectiveness of your words. 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.
- Minutes are objective records, and should not contain subjective observations. 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” in relation to a topic? 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, the decisions made and commitments undertaken.
- Focus on roles, not individuals. In preparing my minutes, I include participants’ names and their respective titles or roles on the first page; this is part of my standard formatting. Then, if it is appropriate to reference a given presenter or participant, I do so by referring to that person by his or her title/role within the meeting. For example, rather than preparing minutes stating, “J. Smith invited expressions of interest in … ” a particular matter, 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 her or his 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 participants. By approaching such matters in the context of your obligation to the organisation and its need for clear, concise records, though, 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 motions or 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 people know what they represent. Remember, you’re preparing historical records. How can we expect someone reading our minutes a decade from now – perhaps a subsequent CEO, Vice President or board member, or our eventual successor one or two hires down the road, after we’ve won the lottery and adopted a different lifestyle – 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 technical information beyond your expertise is involved, invite your internal expert’s eye on the document.
Elegance implies freedom from excess
Consistency of presentation – Do you have a template from which you consistently work? Do you use 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 – It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was 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 without aid of glasses, a magnifying glass or viewing at 20), 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.
Many of us have attended meetings where, for one reason or another, participants dealt with an agenda item both at the intended point in the agenda, and again at another point in the meeting. Rather than recording each of these references to a specific topic independently of one another, summarise such deliberations in one section of the minutes. If participants blur the line between agenda items and considered item “x” while dealing with item “4.3”, use your judgement. If it makes sense to reference such consideration alongside item “s“, you will still include the latter item in your minutes, with a statement to the effect that, “The Committee addressed ‘x‘ under Item 5.2.”
Consider appending a presentation rather than paraphrasing what was said – If your meeting included a presentation that was reflected in a PowerPoint presentation, state this and include a reference to the appendix containing the presentation. Prezis have capacity for dynamism, but do not make effective appendices.
Include key facts that are relevant as you create this historical record
I’ve seen various minutes that contained much of the key information, but excluded one key element: the name of the company or organisation. It may be easy for an assistant to be so focused on the department or sub-unit within an organisation that you 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 Locales
- The date, location, and start and end times of both the current meeting and, if predetermined, that of the subsequent meeting
- You may wish to indicate late arrivals and early departures by means of asterisks and footnotes/references at the point in the minutes when a person arrived or departed. This is not intended as punitive in nature; rather, there may be instances where it’s relevant to know who contributed to a specific decision or plan of action.
- Include those items originally on the agenda, as well as items added at the table
- For each agenda item, include concise summaries of debates and decisions, and the wording and outcome of resolutions / motions