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Good notes make great practice – top tips on note taking

22 June 2015 by John Burns

Notes you may take at a meeting may be deemed to be legal documents at some stage with the possibility of the outcome of a court case literally hanging on those very words. That’s why it’s always important to strive towards the most accurate account possible of every meeting – and here are some tips on how to make minute taking as stress free as possible.

  1. Know your meeting
    To the participants a meeting of the local football club may be as serious as a meeting of the board of a PLC but realistically the demands on the minute taker at these very different types of meetings will vary. Think beforehand about the level of detail that will realistically be required, get to know the participants and their strengths and weaknesses in terms of making coherent contributions (beware the mutterer!), assess the skills level of the chair and prepare accordingly; for example, will you need to interrupt periodically to seek clarifications? Can you rely on summaries of the key decisions or will you have to prompt this? Are discussions likely to be well or poorly controlled? The more you know about the unique nature of each meeting and the people who are part of it, the more empowered you will be.
  2. Know your subject
    You need to understand the key themes of the meeting and enough about the flavour of the topics being discussed. It does take a bit of effort to bring yourself up to speed on some topics and you’ll need to be proactive to do so, but the more you understand the discussion, the more you’ll be in a position to summarise it effectively.
  3. Get the agenda right
    A good agenda should list all topics in a logical order, but here are two hints. If each agenda item has clearly stated objectives in terms of the decisions which need to be made, it will help you as note taker to focus – you know what you are looking for. Second, approach the chair and try to encourage the adoption of placing timings for each item on the agenda; the meeting will be more focused and as a consequence, so should your note taking.
  4. Be assertive Some minute takers tend to be passive by nature and during the meeting may fail to speak up to seek clarifications where necessary. That said there is a popular view that there is nothing more dangerous than a gentle person pushed too far. Learn to be assertive, not aggressive; feel free to openly express your concerns while respecting the rights of others.
  5. Get to know the chair
    Make it a habit to meet the chair for a brief discussion prior to the meeting and try to spend just a few minutes afterwards to clear up any ambiguous points. Try to develop a good understanding between the two of you regarding your respective responsibilities and roles within the minute-taking process.
  6. Listen first; write second
    If you are able to listen to part of a discussion first and then jot down a few key bullet points in summary, you will find the note-taking process far less stressful.
  7. Be a ‘people person’
    Meetings are made up of people and those people have the power to make your note-taking role a total misery. So, take an interest in them, talk and converse, be friendly and arrive at the meeting early to meet and greet. The more you are interested in people, the more they will be interested in you and be willing to help you with points you don’t understand or other areas of concern.

Learn more

ICSA is holding a one-day training course, Effective Minute Taking in Dublin on 17 July 2015.

This course includes information on:

  • Why are minutes kept?
  • The role of the minute taker
  • The problems with minute taking
  • Understanding the nature of meetings
  • The skills of effective minute writing
  • Essential communication skills.
  • Book your place here

Download the ICSA Guidance Note on Minute Taking here We also have a book ‘Effective Minute Taking’ which provides practical guidelines for overcoming the problems faced by minute takers and achieving accuracy in the minute-taking process https://www.icsa.org.uk/shop/books/effective-minute-taking