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Less is More: Elevating Your Minutes

January 27, 2020

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While recording standards have evolved, some things haven’t changed. Many assistants are uncomfortable with the task, or feel uncertain about getting minutes right. Imagine a hundred of us getting together in a room at this year’s Administrative Professionals Conference and EA Summit, and me asking you how much you enjoy attending and recording meetings. Would you say you love this aspect of the career? Would any of the hundred people in our room feel that way?

I posed this very question last fall to readers of my website, in one of my Weekend Polls. I offered up four different answers from which readers could choose, and the results1 were telling. Only two percent said they love attending and recording meetings, and a full 17% of respondents said they dread it. The remainder found themselves somewhere in the middle.  

To some degree, the way you feel about this part of the job may reflect the confidence you bring to the task. In the same weekend poll, 32% of respondents said they’re very confident when it comes to recording minutes. Just as 17% said they dread attending and recording meetings, the same percentage reported having low confidence levels when it comes to this aspect of the job.

Another 51% of respondents said they’re generally confident when it comes to recording minutes, but with exceptions that can depend on the meeting focus/subject matter or the chair’s expectations. Getting clarity on expectations, and then aligning your practices with those expectations, is a good approach to reducing the likelihood of your drafts coming back with multiple red lines or edits.

So, what are the expectations of minutes in 2020? If, like me, you began recording minutes before PCs and laptops were in use, there have been substantial changes in recording standards. Something that hasn’t changed is the importance of minutes. They constitute official records of an organization’s history. Your work represents an official, permanent record of actions and decisions.

When you prepare to record your next meeting, it may help to consider what you will (and won’t) record on the basis of why we record minutes and how they’re used. In addition to providing historical records of actions and decisions, minutes may reflect compliance. In other words, they may serve to verify that the organization adhered to legislation, regulations, policies or by-laws.

Depending on the committees or bodies you support, your minutes may be reviewed in the course of internal or external audits. It’s important to be aware that your minutes may be used in seeking a legal opinion. If parties move beyond seeking legal opinions to engaging in litigation, those same minutes may then be discoverable. It’s not only the finished product, but also any draft minutes you may have kept on your server or in a filing cabinet, that could be deemed discoverable.

If you work in the public sector, you’ll want to be familiar with relevant legislation. Public Records Acts, Freedom of Information laws and other edicts can provide potential for individuals to request access to certain records.

At one point or another, most assistants receive visits from a colleague asking, “Why did we do this?” or “What was the rationale for that decision we made?” It may be that the people asking such questions weren’t even part of the organization when decision “x” was made, or when action “y” was taken. Sometimes, this may be innocuous. People may simply be seeking understanding, and a review of minutes prepared by you or a predecessor can meet that need.

In other instances, someone may want to challenge or defend a decision made by the organization, in which case you’ll be glad if the minutes succinctly provide key points related to the matter in question. The interesting thing about this is that such queries – whether for the purpose of explaining, challenging or defending a decision – may come about the month after a meeting, or years later. I’ve been in the less than enviable position of reviewing decades’ worth of minutes in order to identify and extract information related to such queries.

I say “less than enviable” because this sometimes involved searching through records that had not yet been digitized. Such searches were dusty and I’d typically come up sneezing. As well, the further back in time one went to review such historical minutes, the more (unnecessary) detail they included. These searches reinforced for me the merits of being succinct!

On a less daunting front, minutes demonstrate that meeting participants have executed/discharged their duties or responsibilities. They’re also used to provide transparency. While some meetings are confidential (“closed” or “in camera”), and not all minutes are intended for organization-wide or public consumption, minutes should provide transparency of actions and decisions for their intended audiences.

It can sometimes be challenging to capture key points and balance demonstration of compliance and execution of duty with an appropriate degree of transparency. When you think about recording minutes in the context of all the ways in which they may potentially be used, that helps sharpen your focus. You want to capture and document pertinent information without extraneous detail. This helps to elevate the quality of your minutes.

There are other practical reasons to focus on keeping your minutes concise. First of all, time is a commodity. You’re busy, and so are your meeting participants. While I now train and write full time, it’s not that long ago that I supported a board of directors and its five committees. When I stepped into the job, what do you think was the most pressing direction I was given? I was asked to pare down the minutes from the standard that had been in place for years. Busy people do not appreciate having to sift through unnecessary detail in order to get to the substance of what was decided during a meeting, and why.

As you record future meetings, do so through the collective lens of an auditor, a regulator, a lawyer, your head of communications, and your executive. What does your organization need to have documented, and what could you stop including in your minutes? Once you’ve drafted your minutes, proofread them through the same lens.

As you proofread your minutes, you may also want to highlight information that will be relevant next month, next year and five or 10 years from now. Then, turn to the content you didn’t highlight. Consider whether the removal of such information would diminish or enhance the quality of your minutes.

When it comes to presentations given during a meeting, I learned years ago the merits of avoiding paraphrasing someone else’s work and adding unnecessary paragraphs to my minutes. Instead, you can insert a statement referencing the delivery of the presentation and either note it as having been included in the agenda package or identify and attach it as an appendix.

Be conscious of long narratives. If uncertain as to just how much detail you should record for any given agenda item, consider how much time was allocated for discussion of the topic. Generally, the less time allocated, the more concise you can be. Next, look at the supporting documentation provided to support discussion of the topic. The same principles apply. You’ll want to take particular care with any agenda item that has potential to be politically sensitive. Consider both word count and your choice of words for such items.

Checking for objectivity is another means of elevating the quality of your work. Well prepared minutes will be free of any suggestion of bias, or personal perspective. How can you test this? Pull two or three recent samples of your minutes and review them for the use of adjectives. If you find adjectives, that may imply subjectivity rather than neutrality.

Consider these approaches to recording meetings, and discuss practices with your executive or meeting chair(s). You’ll not only demonstrate that you’re committed to quality work; this will help ensure everyone is on the same page when it comes to expectations specific to your environment.

(1) https://exceptionalea.com/2019/11/01/weekend-poll-results-minutes/


About the Author: Shelagh Donnelly educates and inspire assistants on topics ranging from meetings and minutes to business acumen, cybersecurity and working with boards. She helps assistants nurture their adaptability, productivity and resilience in order to enjoy the career and continue to add value even as roles evolve. An international speaker, Shelagh worked with C-level executives for more than 25 years and is recognized for her governance expertise. Shelagh founded her globally read Exceptional EA website in 2013, and is the author of the upcoming book, The Resilient Assistant.

This article first appeared in Exceptional EA, a globally respected professional development resource for administrative professionals. Visit https://exceptionalea.com/ to find out more and tell her we sent you.

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