In this article
Interestingly, the average British professional spends as much time in meetings each year as they do on annual leave; that is around 26 working days a year. That figure increases for senior management, who can spend more than 50% of their working week in meetings, and for middle managers, at least 33% of their time is allocated to meetings.
A poll conducted by the Independent newspaper claims that 56 per cent of these meetings are generally “unproductive”, which could amount to 14½ wasted days per person per year.
This situation has not improved at all during the COVID-19 pandemic as a new Harvard Business School study found. They studied 3.1 million people in 16 global cities and discovered that despite most meetings now being held via video conferencing whilst attendees work from home:
- People attended 13 per cent more meetings than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Each meeting was 12 minutes or 20 per cent shorter than previously.
- The number of people invited to each meeting rose by two, or 14 per cent.
What makes a meeting unproductive?
Organising effective and efficient meetings is an important component of the decision-making process within any organisation. By running effective and well-recorded meetings, a significant waste of time and money can be prevented. In fact, a badly organised and poorly managed meeting can be worse than not holding a meeting at all.
There are numerous reasons why meetings are unproductive, for example:
- They are unstructured – If the topics and goals of the meeting can’t easily be expressed then why is the meeting being held? Not every single meeting you organise requires a formal agenda, however, meeting invites should always include the topics of discussion, who owns them and what you hope to get out of the discussion.
- They are too long – With the average attention span as low as 8 seconds, it is little wonder that long, drawn-out meetings bore attendees rigid, where some attendees zone out completely. Having shorter meetings is not always feasible, as some issues take longer than 30 minutes to solve. If you must have longer meetings, schedule in breaks early and often to refresh those with short attention spans.
- They are a technical nightmare – Another reason behind unproductive, late-starting or interrupted meetings is technical issues, for example the video conferencing attendee that just can’t quite find their mute button or PowerPoint presentations that don’t load. Technology difficulties can cause even the best-planned meeting to descend into chaos.
- The wrong people are attending – Meeting attendees that contribute nothing to the discussion and often distract from the business in hand, are a big drain on businesses. When meeting organisers blindly include the same people on every single meeting, they haven’t evaluated what, if anything, each attendee can bring to the meeting to make it constructive.
- Nothing happens following a meeting – The true value of a meeting is measured by the decisions, actions and work that eventually comes out of all of that group effort. The quickest way to turn your entire meeting into a waste of time is to let important post-meeting actions drift, with the hope that someone will step up and take ownership of them. A quick and easy way to establish accountability for decisions and action items in a clearly visible way is to have well-recorded minutes of the meeting.
What are meeting minutes?
Minutes are the official recorded or written documentation of a meeting. They are used to inform the attendees and non-attendees of what was discussed and decided in a meeting. As a minimum, minutes usually contain the name of those who attended the meeting, the agenda items discussed, follow-up actions that were agreed, who has accountability for these actions and any noteworthy discussions or decisions that came up during the meeting.
A good minute writer focuses on how the decisions are arrived at in the meeting and the action commitments made by the attendees. Action commitments should be accompanied by due dates and other details showing they are supported by all the attendees. Meeting minutes are also authoritative historical documents. They can provide invaluable information into why a certain decision was arrived at.
For example, meeting minutes can help answer the question, “why would management think this was the best solution even though there was an easier alternative?” Well written minutes should therefore reflect the possible alternatives that were discussed and the reasons why the others were dropped in favour of the one that was picked.
However, minutes don’t need to record everything that was discussed at the meeting, just the important points. From a legal perspective, meeting minutes give an organisation protection by recording why decisions were made. Conveying the decision-making process is often more important than the actual decision itself. Minutes provide evidence that an organisation followed its own internal procedures and showed due diligence in its actions.
Taking minutes is not about recording a meeting verbatim. It is about creating a brief summary of the conversations, picking out the key points and leaving the unimportant things out whilst still maintaining the quality of the information collected and communicated.
What is a minute taker?
Anybody can take some form of notes from a meeting; however, it takes skill and practice to take quality meeting minutes. A minute taker is an essential component in an effective meeting process. They are the meeting attendee who documents the proceedings in writing. The minute taker could be a professional note taker, who has only been hired to take minutes, or admin support staff or a meeting attendee who has been picked to do the job.
When any meeting is held, different attendees will often have very different opinions of what was discussed and agreed upon. It is the role of the minute taker to provide the only official account of the meeting in order to avoid disputes about what was agreed. This is why the role should never be undervalued. A minute taker must listen attentively to the proceedings to avoid losing anything important. It is also their responsibility to give an impartial record of the meeting.
Qualities of a good minute taker
Not everyone is naturally good at taking meeting minutes. However, anyone can acquire the skill through training, personal development and practice. There are some basic skills that every good minute taker must have.
- Listening skills – The ability to listen, absorb and record what is being said is crucial. Active listening requires a great deal of concentration and focus and is vital for recording accurate notes.
- Assertiveness – You must have the confidence to speak up where and when appropriate, for example when seeking clarification of a point being made.
- Organisation skills – You must be well organised. For example, you will need to read the agenda beforehand, potentially hold a pre-meeting meeting with the Chair, go through previous minutes and background papers, and arrange for the provision of any devices and materials that will be needed in the meeting.
- Knowledgeable – It is easier to document the discussions if you know what the attendees are talking about it. You should have some knowledge on the subject(s) being discussed either through formal training or by doing some research prior to the meeting.
- Good written English – The real work is not in the documenting of the proceedings clearly, but effectively communicating the outcomes and salient points after the meeting is over. You must be able to produce a document that is of the appropriate quality for the meeting attendees.
- Critical thinker – Critical thinking helps you sift through the data to know what is noteworthy and what should be left out. Long wordy notes which do not highlight the salient points are of little value unless a transcription of the entire meeting is required.
Minute taking can be a challenging task; it gets even more complicated if you are expected to be an active participant at the meeting as well. Not only are you required to keep track of what everyone is saying, but you are also required to record the discussions and decisions accurately. So additional skills of multi-tasking and objectivity are very useful in this instance.
Minute takers don’t have to have shorthand writing skills as often they develop their own form of shorthand, using abbreviations of words and initials for names; however, be careful, you must be able to understand your own shorthand afterwards.
The role of a minute taker
Every meeting requires multiple roles and responsibilities: Chair, attendees, any guests and minute taker. The minute taker often begins by preparing the meeting room and seating arrangements, preparing and arranging the equipment and paper, and, more importantly, they liaise with the Chair and attendees.
If the meeting is online, the minute taker may test the technology prior to the meeting. The role of a minute taker at meetings is therefore administrative. They put in place preparations aimed at making the meeting a success and then record the proceedings to be shared with the attendees later on.
As an administrator, it is the role of the minute taker to accurately record what happens, what was discussed, what decision was arrived at, and what action steps are expected. Both the Chair and the attendees rely on the minute taker for the success of a meeting. Other duties may include performing critical tasks given by the Chair such as helping with keeping to time on agenda items and maintaining order in certain types of meetings.
Steps to taking minutes
Before the Meeting
The quality of meetings can be enhanced if the minute taker and the Chair have a good working relationship. This can include a “pre-meeting” session to clarify things, for example, the background information that might help in minute taking. A good minute taker needs to anticipate and understand the meeting.
The best way to do this is by establishing answers to the following questions:
- Why – Clarify the reason for the meeting; knowledge of what is being discussed can help you keep track of what is being discussed as you take notes. Also, understanding the aim of the meeting helps you to know if the discussions have met the aim or not. Understanding the aim and objectives of a meeting helps ensure the meeting minutes have reflected them accurately.
- Who – Who will be attending the meeting? This is an important question because as a minute taker, you will most likely be in charge of distributing the agenda items as well as the signed minutes after the meeting. It is important to know who is talking so knowledge of the attendees, and identification of their voice for telephone or online meetings without video, is critical. For larger meetings with lots of attendees, it is advisable to record a seating plan before the meeting starts. This is to ensure that you can easily and accurately keep track of what all attendees contribute through the meeting.
- When – This establishes the time factors of the meeting. It can be part of the role of the minute taker to provide administrative support and to work with the Chair to plan the meeting and its agenda, including bringing other people in for specific presentations.
- Where – Venues can be critical to the success of a meeting so you may want to answer questions like, how convenient is the location? How accessible is the venue for attendees with disabilities? Does the meeting room create an air of ease for all attendees? Is the room big or small enough? For online meetings this might include the accessibility of technology to all attendees.
- What – Are any materials needed for the meeting? This could be papers, presentations, and various forms of meeting technology. Knowing what is required and getting familiarised with it helps save time when the meeting begins. For instance, if a projector fails to connect to a laptop, or an attendee cannot figure out how to connect to video in an online meeting, you should be able to help.
- How – This will help you plan how the meeting will proceed. Knowing what type of meeting it is will influence the procedure. There might be some legal requirements that determine the procedural flow and minute requirements of certain meetings.
During the meeting
Meeting proceedings are documented in many different ways across various organisations. The formats of the documents also vary depending on the unique preferences of an organisation; you may even find different formats used in different departments of the same organisation.
Some organisations opt to use a template that must be adhered to when documenting all meetings; others take a more relaxed approach and allow the minute taker to use their own discretion. You will need to establish the preferred format prior to the meeting.
Generally, minutes use a generic structure, because they often form part of a trail of evidence (for example, if the meeting concerns a disciplinary matter). It is also helpful for the readers, who can focus on the content because they know how the document is structured.
An example of a minute document structure is:
- The organisation’s name and title of the meeting, including the date, time and place.
- Names of attendees – The Chair’s name must be first, and marked ‘Chair’. The minute taker’s name should be last and marked accordingly. Between the two, the names should be in alphabetical order of last name. If there are any officers of the meeting – such as a Treasurer – these come after the Chair and before the other attendees. In organisations, so that readers are clear on the point of view of each meeting member and their responsibilities, it is important to indicate attendee’s position/department. If someone leaves during the meeting, you must record when they left. This is important because it indicates what decisions they took part in and, in case of ‘leaks’, what they knew.
- Guests – Guests are people who are not usually members of the meeting, but were invited to attend the meeting, either as a courtesy or in their specialist capacity. Again, you must record which items they were present for. If someone has come to give a presentation, you do not record their presentation. You simply note in the minutes that they gave their talk; note if any papers were left for members, and record any thanks made by the Chair.
You now start numbering the items, following the same numbers as on the agenda.
- Apologies – List apologies the same as for those present – full name, department and so on. This is a list for those who have been polite enough to send their apologies. It is not a catch-all list for those who haven’t turned up; their names should be marked non-attendee. Even if there are no apologies, you must record this to show the item was dealt with.
- Minutes of the last meeting – Record here that the minutes were ‘agreed as a true and correct record’. Only those present at the previous meeting can vote on this. If there are any agreed amendments to those minutes, then record them, making sure you use the title and number from the previous set of minutes. Once any/all the amendments have been agreed, you then write, ‘The minutes were then agreed as a true and correct record’.
- Matters arising – This is where you will need to refer to the previous set of minutes, because your numbers and titles must follow them as they were originally. If you start to use new titles/numbers, it will be impossible to follow an audit trail. Even if items are not discussed consecutively – perhaps item six was considered before item four – they must be organised in the minutes in the correct order.
- New topic(s) – The minutes should follow the agenda sequence. Each heading should accurately reflect the corresponding item heading on the agenda, though it may be shortened. If the same topic is discussed at several meetings, the same heading should be used every time.
- Any other business – Give each item discussed here a new number and title, continuing from the last agenda number.
- Date and time of next meeting – Say what time the meeting adjourned or ended and show when it will reconvene or when the next meeting in a series will be.
When you record the discussions, note the key points only. Avoid using people’s names as much as possible. Attendees at meetings often make points which are not directly relevant to the issue under discussion. Do not record these in the minutes unless specifically asked to do so.
When recording decisions and actions you always need to state:
WHO – will do the action.
WHEN – it will be completed.
WHAT – the action is. This can include to:
- Pass something on.
- Defer to the next meeting.
- Take some other action.
Something that meetings often forget to do is to agree the WHO and the WHEN. If this happens then the WHO becomes ‘The Meeting’ (meaning everyone) and the WHAT becomes the next meeting (to ensure it is followed up). Decisions on items of confidentiality should also be included in the minutes. You should consult with the Chair on what is confidential.
After the meeting
Once the meeting has ended, quickly collect all your materials including the agenda, any documents or reports that were given out to the attendees during the meeting, your own notes, and verbatim copies of resolutions or motions.
Start compiling your own notes and additional contributions and information into your minute’s template to create the first draft. Get as much captured and written up as you can as soon as possible. Even the neatest handwriting can become hard to decipher once the mind has forgotten writing it a few days later. Highlight any information gaps and seek out missing content or quotes from the relevant parties.
Whilst rarely urgent, there is most definitely a time-critical element to post-meeting communication. Sending out actions still fresh in people’s minds, following up on promises made and sharing documents keeps up the momentum. Delays in finalising and reporting post-meeting will reduce the overall strength of commitment from other meeting attendees.
Depending on the type of organisation and meeting administration, the process for approving minutes will vary significantly. Usually, the document is agreed by the attendees and Chair then an organisational process is followed for management approval if required for formal sign-off. For some meetings, you will only need approval from the Chair before sending out the minutes to attendees.
The Chair and minute taker need to sign against the document. Signing is a method to confirm that the minutes have been reviewed and officially approved, as minutes are legally binding documents, which means signatures play a very important role in validating them.