My whole life, I have been a note taker – not because I have poor memory, but because it is part of how I process information. If someone is simply talking at me (not with me), and I am doing nothing with this information, then there’s a good chance I’m not likely to remember any of it. I have live transcribed interview notes. I have gotten into sketchnotes the past few years. I have typed up official minutes and jumped into the beautiful fray of collaborative notes. Mostly though, I prefer a steno pad and a ballpoint.
Take notes however works best for you.
That being said, there are notes that are for you, and there are notes that are for the creation and sharing of knowledge. Meeting notes fall into the latter category.
To be useful to other people afterwards, meeting notes require a clear structure. They require some synthesis of what had been discussed, agreed upon, and what remained outstanding.
To be useful during the meeting to the person taking notes, meeting notes require a template that reminds you of all the types of things you need to capture.
There are a lot of specific and formatted templates out there. You may have a few or 15 at your organization. But I find that simple is best. It means I can easily create it from memory without having to search for the correct template for that particular client or committee or type of project. Which is really helpful when what was supposed to be a 15-minute check-in with your team turns into an apparently-no-one-renewed-our-domain-registration crisis management session.
Here it is my quick and easy template for all meeting notes:
- Decisions Made
- Action Items
Having spent enough time working with global teams and generally communicating with people who are not American, I am getting into the habit of writing dates in an internationally friendly format: Month DD, YYYY. That’s still rather US centric, if at least clearer, so you and your colleagues might prefer DD Month, YYYY, which is how most (the rest?) of the world formats dates. If you prefer numerical dates and or will be including this in the filename for chronological sorting, I suggest using the ISO standard of YYYY-MM-DD.
Who was present at this meeting? Unless it’s a very small team or very short-term project, I typically include last names so as to maintain clarity for when a second Sanket joins the team. (Trust me, New Sanket and Old Sanket are NOT good ways to distinguish between them.). If this is a meeting across teams or organizations, I may include which group they’re representing as well.
Basically, if these notes were shared with you and you were not at the meeting, what might you want to know about who was involved in making the decisions? What information would you need to follow up with people assigned action items if you have questions? Relevant details will vary somewhat depending on that context of who’s there and who else will use these notes.
Every meeting should have an agenda. It doesn’t have to be super formal, but there should always be a clear purpose for your meeting.
Many people list the topics or the speaking order in an agenda, and that’s not wrong—but it’s not as effective as listing your objectives. How will you know if the objectives of the meeting have been achieved? How do you know when you’re done talking about a topic or if further discussion is needed? It’s easier to tell if your agenda lists “Choose venue for teambuilding” instead of “Discuss teambuilding.” Make your agenda your guide.
If this truly needs to be meeting and not an email, this means there is likely at least one decision to be made. Include any decisions to be made in your agenda.
This space is for recording decisions that have been made. Documenting decisions is crucial. Otherwise, everyone notes what they think they heard to be the group’s decision, and you end up with a game of telephone except that you were all in the room (Zoom or conference) believing you took part in the same conversation. Spelling out the decision in writing gives everyone a chance to refute or clarify, and helps make sure that you are all agreeing to what you think you are agreeing to.
Note that this decision can change in the future; you’re simply documenting the decision at this point in time. For example, that you’re going to have your conference in Baltimore, Maryland, in April 2020. That decision may have made sense in September 2019 but may not have looked so good in March 2020. This doesn’t mean you may not plan out your 2022 conference and revisit having it in person. Documenting your decisions allows people to track what happened when and why things changed.
In the rare instance that no decisions were made* (was this actually a presentation rather than a meeting?), you can always leave this section blank, but it’s a handy prompt.
*If you decided to punt a decision to a later date or separate meeting because, for example, you needed some additional information, or because a key stakeholder wasn’t present—then you made a decision! Add that here.
It is very common that after a meeting, some of the people in the meeting will need to do some things. Documenting those action items here, along with who is responsible and the due date, is again, crucial as a central source of truth and avoiding those pesky arguments about who was supposed to get your domain registration renewed pronto.
This is where you take notes on the substantive points of discussion. Updates shared. Concerns and considerations that went into the decisions that were made. Any disagreements and how they were resolved. Contextual information for those action items. (If there are any questions that require someone to find something out and let the group know – that’s an action item!) And anything else worth noting!
If you’re taking notes during the meeting and scrambling to figure out where to put things in the moment, it’s completely okay to put everything that’s not the agenda (which hopefully you have beforehand or create together at the start of the meeting) in the Notes section. Then you can take a few minutes after the meeting if needed to put the decisions made and action items into their appropriate spots. Since note taking is often done quickly, I often leave them in the notes as is and then try to rewrite them more clearly to put into the Decisions Made and Action Items sections.
Go forth and take notes! Drop me a line if this has been useful to you or if you have any suggestions.