Writing Meeting Notes
Creating Effective, Actionable Records
Have you ever attended a meeting where no one has done what they promised to do at the last one? Because no progress has been made since last time, there's little to discuss, and people soon lose interest. Before you know it, the group's momentum grinds to a halt.
It's a common enough scenario, and yet it's one that can often be avoided simply by making sure that adequate notes are circulated promptly after each meeting. That way, with the discussion still fresh in people's minds, everyone has a clear reminder of what they need to do.
In this article we'll show you how to take thorough, well-organized notes. We'll cover what to put in, and what you can leave out, as well as how to present your notes in a way which maximizes the chances of them being read and acted upon.
Of course, we're not going to pretend that note writing is a thrilling activity, or a particularly exciting aspect of your career. Yet, clearly written, comprehensive and organized notes can be very powerful. They can make the difference between those who attended the meeting going away and doing nothing, or actually doing what's needed in order to move a project forwards. And that progress could be a direct result of YOUR notes!
This article is not about taking minutes, which are formal and very structured. Instead, it focuses on producing action-oriented records of informal meetings.
Before the Meeting
If you know beforehand that you'll be taking meeting notes, spend some time preparing (it will be well worth the effort!) Keep in mind the following:
- Meetings aren't like movies – you want to know the plot before you start! That means scrutinizing the agenda in advance. If you know what points are going to be discussed, you'll be better able to stay organized when you're writing information down.
- Like an artist, prepare your canvas in advance! Use the agenda to create a rough outline, leaving plenty of white space for notes. Consider setting up your notebook according to the Cornell System.
- If you're also going to be participating actively in the meeting, make sure you write out any points you want to make in advance. It may be hard to remember these when you're busy taking notes.
What to Include During the Meeting
So, what actually needs to go into all these notes?
- List who was invited but couldn't make it, as well as who actually attended. This will help you remember to whom the notes need to be sent.
- When an action is proposed and agreed on, write down who's going to be responsible for making it happen, and by when. If the chair omits to confirm who's going to take on a particular task, ask him or her who should be responsible.
- Unless you have top-notch shorthand skills, don't try to write down every word during the meeting, as you're likely to get behind. Taking meeting notes is not a transcription job – you need to think as you're scribbling. Select and summarize as you go along.
You can make it easier to find information in your notes by using symbols to identify key points. For example, you could decide that:
-  - Indicates a “to do” item
- () - Marks an item getting assigned to a particular person
- * - Flags important facts
- ? - Points out things that you need to research further.
After the Meeting
- Your notes should have a title or heading that reflects the overall objective of the meeting. Make sure the date is clearly marked and, if you don't always gather in the same place, record the location as well. This helps people link the document they receive from you with the real-life event.
- When saving your notes, make the filename as specific as you can too. You want to make sure you can find the document easily. Including both the name of the meeting and the date will help keep you organized. Again going for a title like "Marketing Meeting January 17 2010.doc" might not seem very original, but it will mean it's easier to find the relevant document when people need to.
- How much detail do you need to include? This largely depends on what you're meeting about, and the group you're with. If in doubt, it's probably best to be concise, while ensuring that there's enough information for people who were not able to be present to understand what was agreed.
- Send your notes out promptly – preferably within 24 hours of the meeting. Not only does this maximize the amount of time people have to carry out their agreed tasks, but it takes advantage of whatever momentum and enthusiasm the meeting may have created, before it starts to fade.
- If you're serious about getting your notes read, do remember that when you circulate them, your email subject line needs to be as specific as your document title and file name. For more on this, see our article Writing Effective Emails.
While taking meeting notes is not the most thrilling task you'll ever have to do, it does require some thought and organization. Do your preparation before the meeting by going over the agenda, and verifying who's going to be there.
Make sure your notes are easy to find and to use. Keep the title of the document, the file name, and related email subject headings as specific as possible. And make it easier to locate important "action" items by using symbols to highlight the text.
Also, don't delay in getting the notes circulated. Send them out as soon as possible after the meeting. With any luck, you'll be surprised at the next meeting by just how effective this approach has been in moving things forward!