Taking meeting minutes is one of the smaller tasks I handle, but it can provide an important record of business dealings within an organization or between one organization and another. However, it’s not always as easy as I like to think. Today I’ll discuss some of the challenges that can arise.
Is This Job Really Necessary?
I’ve worked in departments where the tech writers found keeping meeting minutes a demeaning task, more suited for less-skilled “clerical” staff rather than more experienced professionals. I don’t work there anymore so I can operate as I see fit, and that means I do the minutes because a) I take notes at meetings anyhow and b) I can use the billable hours.
Why do managers want meeting minutes?
- Tracking of action items: this means having it “on the record” who agreed to do what and by when. This can include:
- Simple to-do items, including tracking “homework” to be done by the next meeting.
- Contractual or legal obligations one party makes to another in the course of a meeting.
- Tracking points of contention: this means one side or the other disagrees with what’s being discussed in the meeting and needs/wants to consult with others–usually a higher authority–before responding or agreeing to proceed with a course of action.
Given the sometimes-contentious nature of some meetings, it’s usually important that the note taker:
- Records behavior, statements, and actions accurately.
- Refrains from inserting opinions if summarizing actions.
- Refrains from assuming or guessing at what meeting participants are thinking.
Technical meetings are challenging if you’re new to the department, organization, or content. You spend a lot of time learning acronyms or unfamiliar terminology. Most of the time it’s easier to ask about those after the meeting to verify their spelling or meaning. However, if you’re expected to record an exact agreement or set of wording in a document, you will have a little more leeway to ask people to slow down and explain what they’re saying.
It’s still easier taking notes in person. This has been a rare thing in the COVID-19 world. Phones and computer speakers sometimes miss things, especially if more than one person is speaking. Body language and expressions also can help convey meaning, even in an engineering setting. Reading lips can help if you’re listening to a speaker with a foreign accent of some sort. And sometimes people just talk so quickly that you miss things because you’re trying to process and write down the previous sentence.
Here are some of the methods I suggest to address the challenges I’ve faced when taking the minutes:
- Ask individuals to repeat themselves–especially if it’s on a critical point.
- Ask subject matter experts for explanations after the meeting.
- Ask for more background on the group/meeting/participants so you better understand what’s being discussed and what topics/actions are most important to capture accurately for later review.
- Ask SMEs to review the notes after the meeting to ensure that I’ve captured particular points accurately.
- Suggest that speakers on a Zoom or Skype call turn on video so you can read expressions/faces clearly.
Meanwhile, think of recording meeting minutes as a way to learning a lot in a very short time. My techie buddies call it “drinking from the fire hose.”