Many people think of note-taking as an administrative task, but it’s actually a skill that, done thoughtfully, requires active attention and critical thinking. Good meeting note-taking synthesizes conversation into key takeaways and a good note-taker can drive a stuck or meandering conversation forward. Learn to do it well and you’ll contribute great value to your team meetings!
In The Hidden Power of Collective Meeting Notes, we discuss how a shared knowledge base of meeting notes can move a meeting conversation forward. In this post, we discuss in more detail the tangible results of effective meeting note-taking and how to develop your note-taking skills.
Effective meeting note-taking helps your team:
As a note-taker, you need to accurately capture information. With this in mind, you can steer the conversation toward clear outcomes. For example: if it sounds like the group may be leaning toward or circling around a decision, you can say,
“I want to be sure I capture this correctly – can someone please state the decision we’re making?” or, “This is what I understand the decision to be (state XYZ) – did I get that right?”
By calling the question, you’ve moved the conversation to a point of actual decision-making more quickly than letting the group come to that conclusion through organic conversation. And even if there’s not yet agreement, you’ve helped identify which points still need discussion, focusing the conversation on what matters most.
For you to record clear and actionable notes that the team can put into action, you must include who is going to accomplish what by when. As the note-taker, be proactive and request this information from the team. Say something like,
“I’ve captured that we need to do XYZ – who should I put as responsible for that and by what date?”
Your meeting notes create alignment among team members by providing an accurate written record of the meeting conversation. At the end of a meeting, quickly recap the decisions and next steps you’ve recorded to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Some teams include a verbal or written “sign off” that the notes are approved. The notes will also provide a written record for the future, so anyone can revisit them to resolve questions or concerns that come up after the meeting ends.
Support the meeting facilitator by helping to keep the meeting on track. When you’re focused on listening and capturing important conversation, you’re in a position to recognize when the discussion has veered off-topic. Say something like,
“I think we’ve gone a little off-track, so if it’s OK with you, I’ve captured XYZ topic in the backburner as a follow-up item for the future. Shall we return to the original agenda item?”
If the group prefers to shift to an emergent, non-agenda topic, then inquire as to what the outcome of this new topic should be so that you can capture an appropriate record of the conversation.
A critical result of effective note-taking is the ability to keep those absent from meetings informed about meeting outcomes. When there are reliable meeting notes, people feel more confident opting out of a meeting in which their only role is to be informed. This allows them to spend their time on more important tasks. Even with meeting notes stored in a collective place, it’s still a good practice to email notes to participants and other stakeholders within 24 hours to keep everyone in the loop.
Effective note-taking is not about recording every word that is spoken; rather, its purpose is to crystallize the conversation into outcomes. Try the following approaches to sharpen your note-taking ability.
“Record the message, not the words.”
— Joanna Gutmann, author of Taking Minutes of Meetings
Take bulleted notes or jot down items as a list instead of writing full sentences or trying to record every word. Don’t worry about English grammar mechanics at this stage; you can revisit this after the meeting before you send the meeting notes by email. In one of our meetings at Meeteor, we explored the pros and cons of different blogging platforms. Instead of writing the pros and and cons in sentence format or recording who said what, we just listed the key points. Look how simple and easy to read these notes are:
Ask clarifying questions to help a speaker articulate a point more clearly or to bring an agenda topic to a close. Listen to your colleagues and paraphrase what you hear by saying,
“XYZ is what I heard. Did I get that right? If not, please correct me.”
After your colleagues confirm or correct what you share, record these points as notes.
Organizing notes into different categories helps you and your team identify what to do next with the information. Categorize your notes into (T) tasks, (D) decisions, and (L) learnings, and leave everything else as general notes. You can categorize the notes as you take them during the meeting or right after the meeting ends. You can write“T”, “D,” or “L” in front of a note or color code the kinds of notes to distinguish them from each other (e.g. tasks are green, decisions are blue, etc.).
This table illustrates the actions you can take for each category of notes.
|What is it?||What to do next with it?||Pro Tip|
Action items that have an owner and due date.
Owners take action by the deadline. Refer back to the meeting notes to ensure accountability.
If the task owner is not in the meeting, assign someone who is there to inform the task owner and provide context.
Agreements made and the rationale for the decision.
Inform people who missed the meeting so they can stay in the loop and adjust their priorities accordingly.
Include a clear rationale to provide context and help you re-evaluate a decision if you need to in the future.
Big ideas, insights or important information that is worth remembering 2 weeks or 2 years from now.
Gather learnings into a centralized place to create your team’s knowledge center.
Use learnings to inform future planning and decision-making, so you benefit from what you learned in the past.
Contextual information with minimal future value.
No need to do much. The context is generally only relevant to this particular meeting.
Since general notes don’t lead to action, separate them on the page from tasks, decisions, and learnings.
It takes time to master the skills mentioned above; a good meeting tool and clear process make it easier. Some people create meeting note templates in Word or Google Docs to use at every meeting. Some software tools, like Evernote and Basecamp, combine note-taking with other useful team management capabilities.
Alternatively, there are a growing number of software tools designed specifically for meeting notes. We (obviously) prefer our own: Meeteor helps you easily implement note-taking best practices like note categorization, emailing a summary and building a collective, accessible knowledge center. Click here to learn more about how Meeteor supports effective note-taking. Whatever you choose, consider two things: 1) Are the notes actionable and clear for those who were present and absent at the meeting? 2) Are the notes easily accessible to all team members?
Learning to take effective notes doesn’t happen overnight. Taking effective notes while also fully participating in a meeting is another challenge! If your team culture allows it, rotate the notetaker role so everyone has a chance to develop their skills and be full meeting participants at other times. Consider having a backup note-taker jump in when a notetaker wants to verbally contribute at length to a discussion.
While the phrase “meeting note-taker” might have elicited groans in the past, we hope it feels less onerous now! A thoughtful and professional approach to note-taking can do wonders to make your meetings more productive.
How do you and your teammates take meeting notes? What works and what doesn’t? We invite you to share your thoughts below!