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Take Initiative: Take Notes

Today in a writing class called Effective Writing in IT, an attendee offered this valuable advice:

At a meeting, make sure someone is acting as the official note taker.

The individual who made the suggestion explained that at the meetings she attends, everyone takes notes–but no one takes official notes. So there is no agreed upon record of what happened at the meeting, and no one sees anyone else’s notes. No one knows how other people viewed the discussion, decisions, and action items.

I too have participated in meetings conducted without an official note taker. These meetings were often followed by more meetings in which we rehashed the same topics. Or we followed up in email and phone calls, struggling to piece together what we had decided at the meeting. That’s why I value the suggestion.

Why not volunteer to take meeting minutes? Doing so, you will be able to focus participants on the essential elements you need to include, things like:

  • Topics discussed
  • Decisions made
  • Action items agreed upon
  • Person responsible for each action item
  • Deadline for each action item
  • Topics saved (tabled) for future discussion

Another person in today’s class mentioned his pet peeve: meeting notes that make assumptions about what was decided. He was referring to a statement such as “We decided that we would roll out the product in June,” when the group did not actually decide on June but merely discussed it.

As the note taker, you must determine when participants have agreed. To do so, ask questions like these:

Have we decided that we will roll out the product in June? Or are we still just considering this date?

Asking such questions takes persistence and a bit of courage, especially if the meeting leader allows people to go off on tangents. But you must persist once you sign on as note taker. To do the job well, you need to be certain about what has been decided.

Taking effective meeting notes can mean the difference between a productive meeting and a waste of the whole group’s efforts. Somebody has to do it. Why not you? Learn how in my online self-study course Meeting Notes Made Easy.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.