Taking Minutes: Style, Structure, and Language
This article is one of a group of three on taking minutes (the other two are on the purpose of meetings and minutes, and the role of the meeting chair and minute taker. This article explains the different types of minutes, the different writing styles used in taking minutes, sorting, selecting and structuring information to produce minutes and the correct tone and use of professional language in writing minutes.
Different types of minutes
There are different types of minutes and the type of minutes that you write will depend on the purpose or use of the minutes. Usually a simple informal type of minutes is used in team meetings, whereas a detailed formal type of minutes is written if the minutes are for external audience. So the type of minutes depends on the type of audience and the purpose.
There are basically three types of minutes:
- Verbatim Minutes
- Discursive Minutes
- Action notes
Verbatim minutes: Verbatim means “In precisely the same words used by a writer or speaker” or “word for word”. These minutes are used especially when there is a dispute of some kind and each word of the speakers will have to be recorded. It is used in formal board meetings or general annual meetings or in legal situations where a person records the discussion word by word. All the arguments and comments made are recorded. Usually it will be a situation where the discussion is focused on a particular individual. As it can be a tedious process, depending on the sensitive nature of the issues discussed, the person who records will have to use an audio recorder or will have to use shorthand and then type up the notes later. Care has to be taken while doing an audio recording so that the recorded piece does not get into the hands of the wrong people. Examples of situations where verbatim minutes are taken are appeals, public hearings, council meetings, disciplinary panels, complaints procedures etc.
Discursive minutes: These types of minutes are used when more formal meetings like committee or board meetings take place. They have the main content of the discussion and action points. These types of meetings are likely to have external audience who will spread the information discussed in the meeting. So the minutes will be in the form of paragraphs, neatly in sections and by order of discussions.
It is very rare to see people addressed by their names in these types of minutes as actions and discussions will be taken by a board or a committee and hence will be mentioned as board or committee in the minutes. The minutes will be taken by the secretary or a person in a similar role, who will not take part in the discussion and hence will be free to record the minutes accurately. The secretary in this case will be responsible for preparing the agenda, arranging for the meeting like venue, refreshments, following up on action points, briefing the chair and distributing other relevant papers.
Action Points: These are the most common type of minutes and are usually recorded as short notes with details of decisions and action notes. The discussions are not recorded in detail, but just mentioned. These minutes are taken at team meetings, small group discussions, internal meetings, project discussions etc. As the name implies these minutes just have a list of decisions or brief notes with action points. These focus on the outcome and future action. It has an informal style and can be written as bullet points as they are only circulated internally. Often the minute taker also takes part in the meeting in discussions. These minutes are simple, can be written down faster and are accurate. These meetings also have an agenda, prepared by the administrators or anyone who is in charge of the meeting. There are times when one of the participants just writes down notes as the meeting goes on.
All the above are the types of minutes and the important thing is to use each style appropriately and effectively.
Different writing styles that are used in taking minutes
Writing style for the minutes is the most important task in the minute taking process. Taking minutes means, the notes taken as the meeting goes on, or while you are in the meeting. You need to write down in a way that you will understand later when producing the minutes. There is no particular rule to abide by, as everyone has their own style of writing down minutes.
The different writing styles used when taking minutes are:
- It is good to have an outline as per the agenda, so it makes it easy for you to take notes underneath each item as the discussion goes on
- Have a list of attendees ready and tick them off as they enter the room, and this will give you a list of people absent too. This will help as you do not have to write down the names of all the attendees as it can be time consuming and confusing when there is a large group.
- Write down the meeting name, date, time and venue of the meeting, include the items that were left without discussing for some reason, as they will need to be referred back in the future. Also do not forget to include the next meeting date and time at the end.
- Do not try to capture everything unless it is verbatim minutes. Listen carefully and capture the important details. Do not write long sentences, just jot down the points (bullet points) using straight forward language. Also avoid repetition and be specific.
- If note taking becomes too difficult as a result of too many discussions and cross references etc, you can always take permission to see if the meeting can be recorded on an audio recording device. Make sure that the participants are aware of this. This helps a lot for clarifying things while producing the minutes.
- When it comes to verbatim minutes, write down everything word by word under relevant headings as this will be useful when you produce the minutes. You need to be a fast writer for this, and it is best to know shorthand. Writing down as much as you can is important and anything that is not necessary can be left out later, because if you leave out certain information, you may not be able to remember them later when you write up the minutes.
- For discursive minutes, write down the important points for each discussion so that you are reminded of what was discussed while you produce the minutes. Again, it is best to write under appropriate headings to avoid confusions while producing minutes.
- For action notes, use bullet points to note down the important points. You can use a template with columns for the subject discussed, the decision and actions
- It is good to use abbreviations as you write, even for names of members, as this will make writing faster. Make sure to use abbreviations that you follow as other abbreviations will make no sense when you look the notes later while producing the minutes. Some examples are, Minutes (mins), Governing body (GB), Preparation (prep), Important (imp), etc
- Always write down discussions in the order that they were discussed, but you can still have the item number according to agenda. For example if item 7 on the agenda was discussed third in the meeting, write it down as the third discussion, but you can have the number 7 next to it for easy reference with agenda.
All minutes have to be concise and accurate, and in order to accomplish this, the notes have to be written accurately in the right order and style. Make note writing as simple as possible by doing some advanced preparations before the meeting and if note writing goes well, this will make the task of producing minutes much simpler. Minutes should also help anyone who was not able to attend the meeting to understand clearly what took place at the meeting, without the need for another meeting for clarification on the same discussions.
How to sort, select and structure information to produce minutes
Producing minutes is the next task in the minute taking process. It is best to write up the minutes as soon as you can after the meeting as you will remember things better. When writing up the minutes, one need not include all that was written down during the note taking process. There should be enough information so that, people who did not attend the meeting are able to follow and capture the contents without confusion or need for further information. So write down the main/important points.
The first point to remember is numbering the minutes. Each item discussed in a meeting or each agenda item that was discussed has a short note called a minute. Minutes altogether is a collection of short notes. So for ease of reading and following, and for referencing it is best to give a number to each minute.
Each agenda item or each discussion should have an explanation (if discursive minutes) or a brief note (if action notes) of what was discussed with main points of the discussion, any disagreements, decisions and actions. It is good practice to have a standard template for minutes if a meeting recurs periodically, as this will make the minute writing task simpler. Any items on agenda, which are standard, can be added on to the minutes template.
The standard items on all minutes are:
- Title / name of the meeting / board / committee
- Date of meeting
- Time of meeting
- Venue / location
- List of attendees – these are people who were invited for the meeting
- List of apologies – people from whom apologies were received
- List of absentees – people who were invited, but neither attended nor sent apology
- Confirmation of Previous minutes along with date of previous meeting
- Amendments arising from previous minutes
- Matters arising
- Summary of discussions, decisions and actions
- Matters in progress or deferred or completed
- Any other business
- Date of next meeting
For the rest of the items add/create the headings on your template. Now you have a layout with headings for all the items discussed in the meeting. Now go through your notes and add relevant information like discussions, decisions and action points across or underneath each heading, discarding irrelevant information.
Structuring the minutes is not a very difficult task, as there is an agreed standard or style or template that is used to write down the minutes. Structure of the minutes also depends on the agenda as minutes are written in the order in which the agenda items were discussed.
In cases where any reports or policies or procedures were approved in a meeting, these have to be attached to the minutes. When minutes have attachments, the annotation Att appears in the margin of the minutes. A reference is also made on the front page of the attachment to indicate the name of meeting or committee or board, the date of meeting, and the item on the minutes to which the attachment belongs to. This attachment has to be filed along with the minutes after approval.
Once you have drafted the minutes, it can be sent to the chair for any clarifications and then approval. After approval from chair they can be distributed to the relevant people, that is people who attended and people who need to action the decisions. It can be useful if the action list along with deadline dates is attached along with the minutes, so that it is easier for the respective people to action them.
If after distribution, people ask for corrections to be made, they can be noted down and taken to the following meeting so that the chair can verify and clarify them along with other members present in the meeting. Only after all the changes are made, the minutes are agreed and signed off as accurate.
Correct tone and use of professional language in minutes
While writing, the writer’s tone is very important, as this conveys a message and shows the attitude or emotion towards the subject from the writer and has an effect on the reader. The appropriate tones used, depend on who the audience are and also depends on the information written.
Minutes are professional documents which are not only viewed by internal people, but can be viewed by anyone outside of the organisation even if it was an internal meeting at times when legal matters are involved. So it is important to write them down in a professional manner using the correct professional / formal tone and language. Also make sure that the document has short and clear sentences that stick to the point and use simple words that are easy to understand.
Minutes should be written in the past tense as they are about a meeting or discussion that took place in the past. Use passive voice where you can while writing down minutes, as this will eliminate the use of any individual’s name, but using just the passive voice will make no sense and make understanding difficult. So always use a mix of active and passive voice sentences while writing down the minutes.
Minutes have details of what was discussed and decided in a meeting by a group of members, and hence it is best to write the minutes as a third person. That way you distance yourself from your writing and you write down things neutrally. Use phrases like, “the chair stated that”, “it was noted”, “the committee decided that”, “it was decided”, etc. In cases where points were put across by a specific person or where agreement was made by an individual, it is important to specify that person and what they said, as it will help for future references.
Spoken words in a meeting should not be written exactly in the minutes, but they have to be transformed into a different language that is acceptable for professional documents. If slangs were used by the members in the meeting, do not include them in the minutes, but replace them with appropriate words. If they are not relevant to the decision or are not important, just omit them. Similarly when arguments or disagreements occur in meetings, do not write them down as arguments, instead use alternative phrases like “various views were expressed” or “various opinions were expressed”. This does not specify the person who was in disagreement, but tells the reader that there was a discussion because of disagreement.
Use phrases or words like, “were concerned”, “the director highlighted”, “the board explained”, “the chief executive requested”, “expressed concern about”, “suggested to the meeting”, “raised the issue of”, etc. The next point to note is to check for spelling, grammar and punctuation. Do not rely solely on spell and grammar check on your document editor. It is best to manually read the minutes after you have drafted them and also get another person to read and feedback.
I hope this has been of some help to you. Thank you for reading. Please do not hesitate to contact me with any queries or any feedback relative to this hub. If you feel that it does not cover the relevant topics, please feedback!