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Taking Time to Take Minutes

Updated on December 2, 2014

Tips for taking formal minutes

Taking Minutes can be daunting and many people are worried at finding themselves the meeting “scribe”. Let’s think about why we take Minutes: importantly to provide a record for formal meetings:

  • to comply with legal requirement (e.g. record of disciplinary or grievance meeting and providing copies to employee and the company)
  • to prevent misunderstanding or misinformation
  • may be used in court as evidence many months later
  • essential memory jogger – our memories are subjective, fragile and non-linear and we sometimes need a trigger to access further memories

Who’s who in the meeting?

The Chair is in control of the proceedings and takes responsibility for what happens.

Minute taker (sometimes called secretary) is under the direction of the Chair but if you have any concerns about the meeting, discretely indicate them to the Chair.

Respondent (usually the employee as subject of the meeting).

Others e.g. employee representative/companion as allowed by the company policy.

What concerns do you have as minute-taker?

I might get lost in what’s going on:

You are not a machine and if you need a break or you can’t keep up, discretely tell the Chair. He /she can slow down the proceedings and ask people to repeat statements if necessary. Sit where you can hear everyone and ideally where you can see people’s faces. Make sure you have enough space to spread out your papers, sitting comfortably but not overly relaxed. Also sit where you can see a clock: the Chair should state the start and finish times of sessions but it is as well if you can also do this. Ensure you have a drink of water at hand – dehydration makes concentration difficult

Role of the Minute-taker: just what do I do?

You are there as aide to the Chair and this means that you will act Confidentially, Impartially and be Accurate in your meeting record. You are also a Witness to the procedure and must be careful to remain objective and not caught up in the content of the meeting. This is a vital role to ensure that a true record is taken of proceedings.

A specific minute-taker enables officers in the meeting to concentrate on the procedure and issues at hand. It can also offer an interesting insight into your business

What are Minutes anyway?

They are an unbiased and true record of

  • Issues discussed
  • Major points raised
  • Decisions taken
  • Who said what
  • Agreed actions specifying who, what and when

If you are able to have a discussion with the Chair beforehand about the issues that are likely to be raised, you will be able to home in on those more easily in your notes. Be careful not to form any opinion about what you are going to hear.

Check on who is who in the room. The Chair should introduce everyone and their role but if that doesn’t happen, please ask to avoid misunderstanding later. When taking notes, you might use initials of each speaker – be clear who it is, especially when you have people with the same initials

Remember that Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures MUST be fair, reasonable and consistent and good minutes are vital to that aim.

What should I do?

Please do this J

  • Careful listening
  • Clarify
  • Keep up
  • Verbatim as necessary
  • Right order
  • Right speaker

Please avoid this J

  • Don’t get distracted
  • Don’t get involved
  • Don’t become biased
  • Don’t guess
  • Don’t get behind
  • Don’t make comments
  • Don’t forget to turn off mobile phone

And to be clear...

Don’t guess at what you didn’t hear or fall too far behind and think you can remember it later… you won’t! Make sure that you log the start, finish and adjournment times

What tools should I bring?

  • A clear mind!
  • Notebook, reporter pad, pen, pencils
  • Copy of agenda (if appropriate)
  • Both ears!

Tips and Techniques

  1. Use as much space in your notebook as helps you
  2. Divide the page lengthways so that your hand has less distance to travel
  3. Write on one side of paper: this saves time and facilitates better legibility
  4. Use a separate column/margin for speaker’s name/initials
  5. Number pages – there could be a lot of them!
  6. Use Abbreviations that work for you
  7. Pencil versus pen: pencil glides more readily on paper, but try to avoid a scratchy writing implement as the noise can be distracting
  8. Quality lined paper is advisable since cheap paper can become blotchy

What abbreviations could I use?

There are special writing forms that can be learned e.g. Speedwriting or Pitmans: (your company may have a policy on this) or use something that you can read back e.g. “text” language. Just make sure that you can read it back and that it is clear to you: Uz abbrev obvus 2 u. What works for you is the best method, but why not try out other people's suggestions and methods as well. (A good idea doesn’t mind who thought of it).

Verbatim: When should I write exactly what was said?

The Chair should direct you but as good practice you should write out verbatim any legal statement, contentious statement. Additionally, write out in full any technical phrases and people or place names.

People should not use swear words during a meeting but unfortunately from time to time it may happen. You may need to use your judgement and follow the Chair’s direction over whether you record this – in some limited circumstances it may be useful to indicate a person’s demeanour on that day and in certain circumstances could be used as evidence (e.g. in discriminatory case). If you find this offensive then consult with the Chair.

When writing up notes you will need to use quotation marks “for verbatim”. When you are summarising, be careful not to use terms that are denigratory or imply any bias or prejudice or discriminatory language.

Well can’t we just use electronic recording?

Some companies do not allow this. For one thing, transcribing and then reading the notes will take as long as the meeting itself and this is generally undesirable. Additionally there are a number of inherent problems:

  • Poor sound renders the record useless
  • Need everyone’s permission
  • Not always acceptable in court
  • Transcription is not easy
  • Not always easy to understand who is speaking

However, there are some special circumstances where it may be desirable e.g. when the meeting is attended by someone with a disability and they are not able to take their own notes.

Very fast typists can sometimes take notes straight onto a laptop and this is particularly useful for informal meetings where just actions and decisions are logged. In general disciplinary and grievance proceedings need more detail and occasional verbatim notes. However, keyboard tapping can be distracting in a complex meeting.

Writing up and delivery for Approval

It can be useful to develop a template for transcribing the minutes. However you do it, the minutes must be concise and coherent. Remember to number pages and ensure all documents and computer files are kept confidentially. Transcribe your notes as soon as possible ensuring readability through correct Grammar and Punctuation. When transcribing and using particular words or phrases repeatedly it can be helpful to set Autocorrect on your computer. Oh… and please proofread it yourself! You may well find some corrections are needed, then they will go to the Chair who will want to check them before authorising distribution.

Writing up minutes can seem daunting, particularly when you have just spent hours taking the handwritten notes. Grit your teeth and do this as early as you can: memory is a strange phenomenon and you may find that what you thought you would remember easily has melted away and it takes longer to work out what you are transcribing. Also, if you have any queries there is a fair chance that the Chair will remember provided it is not too long after the meeting.

If sending document by email for approval, ensure that you click “confidential”. Store each document version and be sure you know which is the final and approved version. Make your documents for Discipline and Grievance chronological. Short sentences enable better readability. Consider your layout and font for easy readability and reference. Write impersonally and in the past tense.

Punctuation, spelling and grammar are very important to produce an accurate and professional record and essential for correct understanding by people who weren’t at that meeting. (Obviously if you are writing verbatim then it will be exactly what was said).

Please ensure that any material (completed minutes, notes, any agenda) is kept confidentially. Please hold on to your handwritten notes until the Chair has agreed your typed minutes – s/he may need to you to refer to them. When agreed, you may then destroy your notes but be aware that if an issue goes to court, any and all notes in the company relating to that issue are “discoverable” and may be required by court.

Keep objectivity by reporting only succinct facts not emotion, e.g. write a discussion (not a heated discussion); and Mr Bloggs motivational comments suggested that …write instead- Mr Bloggs commented that or simply Mr Bloggs said…

To recap: Minutes must be

  • Objective
  • Consistent
  • Readable
  • Professional
  • Accurate

Practice, practice – it gets easier!

© 2014 Christine de Caux


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