Meeting Minutes for Everyone

This post proposes a system that can be used to document meetings in a simple and accountable fashion. It can be implemented using any kind of note-taking tools and is easily extensible.

Why you should take meeting notes

We spend a lot of our time dealing with each other. Most of this interaction is through meetings. Even so, people usually don’t take notes on meetings — they try to keep everything in their heads. Sadly, your brain is not the best place to store things. That’s why taking meeting notes — or meeting minutes, as these notes are formally called — is so important. It allows you to dump everything into a system that can be processed at your leisure.

Even so, how can you keep up with the pace of the meeting and take notes at the same time? That’s why having a system to handle minutes is a must.

Evernote or Moleskine — It doesn’t matter

The system I outline here is medium agnostic — that means you can use it with a fancy text editor or even a more analog tool, like a Moleskine or a sheet of paper. Personally, I like to take meeting notes by hand, since it’s scientifically proven that writing by hand helps you remember more and have a deeper understanding of what you’ve captured. It’s up to you to find the best tool for the job.

How I do it

Preparation

I have a notebook for meeting notes only. Before a new meeting starts, I make sure I have the notebook opened to a blank page. I also make sure my favorite pen is nearby. Then, I make note of the following:

  • Metadata: The first thing I write down is the title of the meeting. I usually get this from the meeting invite subject line. I also make note of the meeting date.

  • Intent: Next step is to summarize the intent of the meeting. I write a quick paragraph of what I think the meeting is about.

  • Meeting Owner: On the next line, I write down who I think the meeting owner is. It’s usually the person who sent the calendar invite, but not always.

  • Key Participants: After that, I list the participants. If the list is too big, I fill this in later with the people I mentioned in the minutes.

  • Agenda: If the meeting has an agenda, I link to it using the system I outline in my Medium article (link above).

While the meeting is happening

After the meeting has started, I try to keep my hand writing as much as possible without thinking about it. To do that, I like to use some abbreviation systems, for example:

  • I use two letters instead of a person’s name. So instead of writing Rodrigo Franco, I write down RF. Instead of Pat George, PG.

  • All my minutes are in outline style — they are lists of actionable or informational stuff. I use the DashPlus system to categorize them.

  • If I’m writing something and, while doing it, decide it’s not worth continuing on that idea, I draw a long dash after it, killing the line.

If I lose something while taking notes, I add a note about asking for more information about it later.

After the meeting is done

All these notes are very valuable, so keeping them in my notebook is a waste. Ideally these meeting notes should be moved to a searchable digital file, easily accessible to anyone who participated.

Caveats

Not all meetings requires minutes

How can you know which meetings require notes and which don’t require them? You will get used to it. By practicing this meeting notes system, you start to easily be able to see what you are looking for — the meeting agenda, owner, key participants. Some examples of meetings that I always benefit of taking notes are:

  • Project Kickoffs
  • Sprint Retrospectives
  • Quarterly Performance Reviews

Writing notes and listening at the same time is hard

It gets easier with time. Like any skill, you need practice to achieve better results.

Conclusion

Having meeting notes saved my skin more than once. Urgent meeting scheduled out of the blue while you were busy coding? Just review previous meeting notes and you are ready to go. Need to catchup with a colleague about a old project? Your notes are there to help you.

This system is pretty much under development. A lot has changed since I started, and I’m sure things will change in the near future, but one thing is clear to me: taking things out of my brain and putting them into trusted systems helps me immensely. I hope it will help you, too.

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