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Taking Effective Meeting Notes

A large part of the role of the PMO is supporting communications and the exchange of information that regularly happens in projects, programmes and portfolios.

One of the most common supporting roles is the one the PMO provides in meetings and regardless of what level of PMO professional you are or what context you work in, you will be required to take effective notes.

Yet many of us working in PMOs are probably expected to just get on with it and receive minimal training or guidance.

In this extended article, we take you through to process and provide guidance and practical tips on becoming an ace note taker.

 

Common Problem Areas

You’re not alone if you experience any of these problems when it comes to taking effective notes in meetings:

  • Knowing what the key points are
  • Making the notes concise and accurate
  • How to get people to repeat themselves
  • Keeping up with the conversations
  • Dealing with jargon and technical terms
  • Not knowing people’s names
  • What to keep out of the notes
  • How to deal with people talking at the same time

In this article, we’ll cover how to overcome these.

Before that, let’s start at the beginning, what are meeting notes or minutes? And why do we have them?

What are Minutes?

 

They’re simply a record of the proceedings of a meeting. An official record and transparent conduct of business. They are a record of action too, who needs to do what and when. They’re also for the people who couldn’t attend, just as much as for the people who were there.

Minutes are done after a meeting, not during. During the meeting, it’s about taking effective notes which will enable you to create concise and accurate minutes afterwards.

Taking effective notes replies very much on the roles and responsibilities of those conducting the meeting and who is supporting them. Often the person responsible for running the meeting is called the Chair.

 

Roles and Responsibilities

 

Some of the challenges the PMO might face in taking notes can be alleviated by understanding the roles and responsibilities.

For example, let’s take a look at the role of the Chair, they are responsible for:

  • Deciding the purpose of the meeting
  • Reviewing the agenda
  • Clarifying areas of understanding with the note taker
  • Confirming the types of notes to be taken by the note taker
  • Confirming what duties of the note taker are prior, during and after the meeting
  • Agree how to manage note-taking if the note taker is to be a participant in the meeting
  • Confirm and agree where the note taker will sit
  • Introduce note taker and attendees
  • Keep to agenda points and time allotted
  • Control the meeting i.e., keep to the agenda points, time allotted and manage the attendees
  • Pause the meeting to summarise points for the note taker and clarify Actions and Decisions
  • Any other business (5 to 10 minutes max)

 

The PMO may have to work with the meeting host to make sure they’re aware of their responsibilities – not many people are!

If the Chair is performing their role, it’s clear to see that you will have more support as the note taker – especially in terms of understanding what the key points are; who all the people in the meeting are; people talking over each other etc.

Top Tip – draw a plan or table map. As people introduce themselves at the beginning of the meeting, draw a quick map of the table and note who is sitting where. You can also then use their initials throughout the notes you take

 

The Role of the Minute Taker

 

The minute taker will be taking notes throughout the meeting and we’ll look further into how they do this effectively later in this article.

They are also responsible for:

  • Immediately following the close of the meeting, they meet with the Chair to review the notes
  • Expand the notes and write up the minutes as soon as possible
  • Proofread before sending minutes, marked Draft to the Chair for checking
  • Distribute minutes
  • File
  • Prepare agenda for the next meeting
  • Keep the notes of the meeting until the minutes have been formally approved at the next meeting

The minute-taker is also responsible for:

  • Booking the room
  • Preparing and circulating an Attendees list
  • Read through and check previous minutes of the previous meeting
  • Print and take spare agendas and meeting minutes of the previous meeting
  • Arrange and set up the room and equipment
  • Arrange refreshments if required
  • Minute-takers should be sat near to or next to the Chair
  • Draw up a plan
  • Have a notepad or laptop available
  • Listen and take notes.

 

Assertiveness

 

One of the things that can really help you become a better note-taker is assertiveness. If we look at some of the challenges – such as asking people to repeat themselves; interrupting the flow to ask for clarification; speaking up when you’re not sure you understand the jargon etc – these are all related to your own confidence levels. There are some brilliant resources over on Psychology Tools for you to have a browse through and read. Make sure you see the Self-Help Programmes.

 

What is an Agenda?

 

Meeting Agenda

Meeting Agenda Template

A good agenda helps make a good meeting because it provides the structure and process. It also allows attendees to prepare for the meeting too.

It lays out what will be discussed and in what order; when and where the meeting takes place; it highlights what preparation might be needed and what attendees might need to bring. It also clearly shows who will be attending and often it will include what decisions may need to be taken on the day.

Creating the agenda is done with the Chair and the first stage is the agenda items – what needs to be discussed.

Other items on the list will include items to be brought forward which were not resolved last time or are ongoing. Minutes of the previous meeting are listed as an item – as is Any Other Business and date of the next meeting.

The agenda should also include timings against each item.

 

To Be a Good Note Taker, You Need to Be a Good Listener

 

There’s a big difference between hearing and listening. Within the PMO Competency Framework, one of the key skills is active listening and becoming an effective note taker is definitely one of the ways to practice that skill.

Active listening is defined as, “a technique of careful listening and observation of non-verbal cues” Wiki. There are a whole host of different techniques and insights availabl
e to help you really listen to what is being said. Active listening can also be called listening with understanding because there are many ways in which we filter what we are listening to which adversely affects what we choose to note when in meetings.

If we think about all the different barriers to effective listening, it can help us to think about how meetings could be made better to counteract them. In each one of the barriers, there should be something the Chair or the note-taker can do to overcome them.

Take a look at some of the barriers to active listening in meetings:

  • More than one person talking at the same time
  • Too much background noise
  • Speakers are too quiet
  • Lack of understanding of the topic being discussed
  • The meeting is too long
  • Strong accents of speakers
  • Writing (taking notes) and listening at the same time
  • Not in the mood for attending a meeting
  • Not seeing the point in the purpose of the meeting
  • Missing the points being made in the conversation
  • Keeping up with the conversation
  • Repetition
  • The conversation is too fast
  • There are conflicts that affects the atmosphere
  • Meeting or items overrunning
  • Technical issues
  • Daydreaming
  • Interruptions
  • Distractions
  • Environmental – too hot/cold
  • Tone of voices
  • Physical needs – hunger, comfort breaks

 

What to Take Notes Of

 

There are three main areas we need to capture in meetings. These are:

  • Actions
  • Decisions
  • Summary

 

You start by listening and taking notes with a focus on being able to capture the three most important elements, which you’ll add in your formal minutes later.

Taking notes you can use the ABC approach – which essentially means Accuracy, Brevity and Clarity. This is what you’re aiming for with your note-taking.

Keep your note-taking short and simple, but be specific, keep sentences short and use bullet points and numbered lists wherever you can.

You should be focusing on capturing the facts of the meeting – not the opinions of the various attendees. Remember, before the meeting you should have a clear idea about what your role is and what you are expected to capture based on your planning with the Chair beforehand.

A good tip is to use a summary sheet throughout the meeting, such as this one below you can quickly capture these as they happen and share this at the end of the meeting with the Chair to make sure they are satisfied that the important parts were captured.

Summary Tracker

Meeting Summary Tracker Template

 

How you capture and take notes is a very individual thing and it’s about finding the best way to suit you. Different processes, small tricks and hacks, trying out different ways until you find the approach that you’re most comfortable with and has the best results for you.

Using notepaper, a laptop or even a tablet with a writing-based app are the three most common ways to capture the notes. Here’s an example of a note-taking template that can be used in conjunction with the summary page above.

The template below can also be used for your formal meeting minutes – just incorporate the full agenda at the top.

 

Note Taker Sheet

Note Taker Sheet Template

 

Taking Notes Freehand

Maybe you’re one of those people who like to use pen and paper – or an app with a pen? It doesn’t matter how you want to capture the notes as long as you get the most important points.

You’ll use your freehand notes to help populate your meeting minutes template so you can do whatever works best for you. Here’s an example:

Action Tracking

 

When decisions get made, actions are often needed to make something happen. Actions are recorded in your notes and are generally captured in two places. First, there’s a recording of the action within the minutes against the agenda item. Second, actions are also added to the action list at the end of the meeting minutes – this is the summary list of all the actions captured during the meeting.

Top tip – ask the Chair to clarify any of the actions if you think you haven’t captured it correctly, “need clarification on that one”.

When it comes to actions – the 5W and 1H remind us what we might need to capture in the actions. That’s Who, What, Why, Where, When and How.

It can be a simple numbered list or has a number configuration related to the agenda item number. See the example:

Action Items List Template

Action Items List Template

 

Proofreading

Note-Taking

When you’ve worked through your notes; created your meeting minutes focusing on the summaries of conversations, the decisions taken and actions recorded – it’s time to proofread your work.

The best approach is to leave it for a while and then come back later and re-read what you’ve written. You could also ask someone else in the PMO team to read the minutes through too.

Top tips include; read it out aloud – check for different things on each readthrough (spelling, grammar, full stops) and try reading it backwards – this is good for catching double words.

You could also check out Grammarly – we use it a lot at House of PMO! Worth every penny.

 

Further Resources and Reading

 

Here are a few more resources to help you become more effective at note-taking:

 

Meeting Minutes

 

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4 Comments

  1. ebweb42

    Your article is easy to read, shares great tips and techniques – for both the newbie and the old timers. Very timely as I was asked at my new job to run a meeting towards the agenda and take notes so the stakeholder didn’t need to do both. Thanks! Ellie

    • Lindsay Scott

      Don’t you just love it when something comes along just in time! 🙂 Thanks for the feedback!

  2. csenorton

    Some good tips in here. There are some nuances in virtual meetings though, and technology can help with some of the issues, eg. most meeting software will let you see who’s speaking and people can raise their hand to ask questions (although that doesn’t mean they always do!). What we’re also trialling is making use of meeting chat functionality to capture actions during meetings. This allows people to challenge/correct/agree at the time so you can turn your action log round very quickly after the meeting, you don’t need to double check with the chair and it eliminates ( so far) ‘I don’t remember taking that action’ moments.

    • Lindsay Scott

      Great points about the virtual meeting. I’ve heard that some virtual tools can actually transcribe automatically but I’ve not seen it in action. The other way of using the meeting chat functionality is to ask a question to everyone – they then write their answer in the chat but don’t press send until everyone is ready. Then everyone presses send at the same time. It’s a great way to avoid things like groupthink and also enables everyone to freely contribute. The answers are often fascinating.

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