Taking Minutes: Less is More
Minute-taking is often an admin’s least favorite task. I’ve heard from more than one person that they want to call in sick on the days they have meetings that require minutes.
It appears that so many admins hate taking minutes because they don’t have a good understanding of what information they are supposed to capture. Because of that, many admins simply follow the same format and style the previous minute-taker followed. But often that style is not only wrong, it’s also potentially dangerous to the company, because far too much information gets included in the document.
Minutes are meant to record the decisions of the group, the discussions around them and any necessary actions. They are not a verbatim account of who said what, the way a court record is. Minutes have evolved; they are no longer the lengthy, rambling documents they once were.
[ctt template=”3″ link=”A6V2a” via=”yes” ]Minutes are not a verbatim account of who said what.[/ctt]
Back when I was stepping into my role as EA to a senior vice-president, I had never created minutes before so I followed the example of Carol (the EA prior to me). Carol took extremely detailed minutes, capturing what everyone said. She created a transcript of the meeting. Carol knew shorthand, and I did not.
I assumed that since Carol was in the role before me, she was doing the minutes correctly. She was not.
Since then, I’ve learned a lot about what minutes are for, and I’ve learned that less is more when it comes to minutes (regardless of whether they are formal or informal).
Why Less is More
The more information you put into your minutes, the more likely it is that you will include something that opens up the company, or an individual, to liability.
[ctt template=”3″ link=”57iS3″ via=”yes” ]When taking minutes, less is more. Here’s why[/ctt]
Let’s use, as an example, a product recall. Here is a correct and an incorrect way to record the minutes of that meeting.
On a motion made by Rachel and seconded by Melissa: “We will recall our widgets nationwide effective immediately.” MOTION CARRIED
– Recent increase in injuries due to broken parts
– Best decision to protect consumers and our brand
– Corporately responsible decision
On a motion made by Rachel and seconded by Melissa: “We will recall our widgets nationwide effective immediately.” MOTION CARRIED 5-4
A discussion was held about recalling the widgets. Mike advised that in the past month they have had over 100 formal complaints, which is a 25% increase over this time last year. Mike said they have always known that component X breaks when its temperature is increased but figured that people wouldn’t heat the widget. Obviously they are, so now we are seeing an increase in broken parts and a few injuries because of it. Susan asked if any lawsuits have been filed against us and Joanne said there were a couple that were settled before they got to court.
Without even continuing, you can see the major difference in these minutes. The correct example shows what we spoke about but doesn’t include information that could be potentially dangerous to the company in the future.
Let’s assume someone does sue the company and, in discovery, these minutes are subpoenaed (which could easily happen). This document makes it look as though we were well aware there were issues with our product. And let’s assume that, when she talked about lawsuits, what Joanne actually meant was, “We have had lawsuits in the past about other things, but they’ve never made it to court.” These minutes imply that all of the lawsuits she’s talking about had to do with the breaking of our widgets. There is also the danger that Mike could be open for legal action with the observation, “Mike said they have always known that component X breaks….”
When you add a lot of detail, you create a need for you to interpret people’s comments; your interpretations may not be completely accurate (possibly through no fault of your own) and that could create problems for the company.
Do you see how very detailed minutes could potentially open yourself and the company up to liability? When you create minutes the way the correct example shows, you are not leaving the company open to any potential liability. And, you’re not throwing Mike or Joanne under the proverbial bus.
Also, unless you are dealing with elected officials (politics), you shouldn’t be listing the voting numbers. This motion was passed. That is all that is needed. By indicating that the motion was passed 5-4, it implies that the issue was potentially contentious. Why does anyone need to know that? They don’t. This is a corporate decision. We are all moving forward with the decision. Why create potential politics when people try to figure out who voted for or against the motion, or show an ununified group of leaders?
Minutes are supposed to capture decisions, discussions, and actions. They are not supposed to be a blow-by-blow account of who said what. The written word can easily be misinterpreted by people who were not in the room to hear the conversation (or by the minute-taker herself, who may not be privy to all the information she would need for that).
Less is More minutes are also easier to read. If you are honest with yourself, you’ll admit that few (if any) people read meeting minutes thoroughly. What they typically do is skim them. They are looking for their name. They want to know what you think they said so they can adjust it, and they want to double-check what they volunteered to do. When you create minutes that summarize rather than document conversations verbatim, they are much easier to write (look at how much less writing is required for your rough notes), and much easier for the reader to find the salient points of the discussion. In other words—they’re better.
I’ve been teaching minute-taking for more than 20 years. The most common mistake made by all minute-takers, experienced or not, is that they write down too much information.
The right way to take minutes is to simply capture a summary of what was discussed. Not who said what. Not an interpretation of what was discussed. But a high-level summary of the topics, without the fine details and without quoting anyone.
Too much information is too much (wasted) work and, more importantly, is potentially dangerous to your company and its employees. Less is more.