Taking better notes in meetings

Nov 02, 2016

I have sat in several meetings surrounded by people with laptops diligently typing in everything that’s said. I have to admit I tried it once and I didn’t like it. I felt disconnected from my fellow meeting goers and I’m not entirely sure I remember what exactly I was typing in methodically anyway. Now I’m not saying that laptops don’t work. Yes they are very efficient and save you typing up notes later. And for some people they work a treat. But if you’re like me and prefer the traditional pen and paper, then what I’m about to say might be of interest to you.

What’s the point?

Why do we take notes in meetings? Is it because not taking notes make us look uninterested? Or is it the fear of forgetting important information that we might need to recall at a later date? I think it’s a mixture of both. Have you ever been in a meeting where someone doesn’t take any notes? Do you think they must have amazing ability to memorise everything or are you secretly thinking that they couldn’t care less about what is going on? The reality is that meeting notes keep everyone on track and remind them of what needs to be done and what their role in completing the tasks are. They are a reference point which saves confusion or disagreement down the track.

Some people bring a staff member who is not involved in the meeting conversation and ask them to take notes which allow them to focus on the conversation and can be assured of good quality meeting notes. But many of us do not have that luxury. We often attend meetings and have to take our own notes in order to advance in our work. How many times have you looked at your notes and while they made perfect sense at the time, you can’t make head nor tail of what you meant a day or a week later? Many of us get worked up about scribbling everything down only to realise after the meeting that we have missed some pertinent points.

So what do you want your notes to convey?

Be concise

Your notes are a narrative about something that has happened or will happen. They should be an accurate representation of what went on at the meeting.  They should not contain unnecessary details that don’t benefit anyone. For example, if there is a delay in a solicitor issuing a letter because he has been on holidays, no one needs to know that he has been to Mauritius with his wife and four children and his flight was delayed on the way there. Be sensible with what you record. By the time you finish writing that he had a great time in the sun, you might have missed something critical. 

Write the important points first:

  • Where and when did the meeting take place?
  • What was the purpose of the meeting?
  • Who chaired or led the meeting?
  • Who attended the meeting?

Who attended the meeting is often one that goes astray. Make a note when you sit down or check off their names on your attendee list – no matter how much you think you will remember; there is always a possibility that you will forget one or two names.

Look at the agenda

The agenda is always a good starting point when making notes. Make sure you make a record of what was discussed under each agenda item and cross them off as you go along. This ensures that you have covered everything and makes typing up your notes later much easier.   

Structure

Think about what you want your notes to convey. Are you making a list of discussion points where bullet points would be effective or are you developing a work action plan where a work-flow chart might work best? If you’re listing tasks and assigning people to those tasks, drawing a rough table might help.

Do not record the notes verbatim. The notes should give an outline of what happened rather than a document of who said what. You need to focus on understanding what is being said. There will be situations where you are in a meeting and you cannot follow what is going on. This is when note taking becomes critical. You will need to look back on these notes and try to understand what was being said. We have all been there. Panic sets in during the meeting when things become too technical. Keep calm and write down keywords. With further understanding of the topic after the meeting, you will be able to join the dots.

Learn Shorthand

Meetings may go on for hours and you won’t physically be able to jot every single word down. Learn to shorten words or sentences but ensure that you understand your own shorthand. Use symbols of drawings if necessary. You will learn as you go along.

After the meeting

While you might feel like pulling on your jacket and making a swift exit out of the building following the meeting, you are probably better off logging onto your computer and typing up your notes.  The sooner you finalise the notes, the better. If you leave it too long, you may forget important items that you heard but didn’t write down or the less sense the minutes make.

Proofread with care

Others must understand your notes and must be able to rely on them. Don’t ruin your credibility by having spelling mistakes or incomplete sentences. Don’t forget to distribute the final note to attendees, not forgetting you might need to get them approved by the chair of the meeting first.

Make sure you save a copy or print a copy on file for future records and remember these notes may be relied upon a long time down the line.

Hopefully the above is helpful. Remember; keep it brief and simple, if you can’t understand what you are writing you can ensure no one else will!

About the author: Cróna Brady

Cróna is a Chartered Accountant and Associate of the Irish Taxation Institute who has spent over 10 years working in tax consulting in Big 4 and Top 10 firms. She spent a number of years working as a financial accountant in the not-for-profit sector in Australia. She is currently the Tax Manager in Chartered Accountants Ireland. Cróna is a tutor for the Chartered Tax Consultant course and Diploma in Taxation for the past few years. In her spare time, Crona loves to run, travel, read and plays the odd game of bridge. 

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