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Copyright by Stephen Wilbers, Ph.D.


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The joy of taking minutes is every writer’s dream

by Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere



Can you remember when you got your first real job? What was your first thought when you heard the good news?

If you’re like most people I know, it was, "I hope they’ll let me take the minutes at my first meeting."

It’s the dream of most new professionals.

After all, what could be more satisfying than to know that you are part of history in the making, to think that the little marks you make on paper or the little keystrokes you use to inscribe your thoughts in electronic space might be read by generations to come?

Being appointed recorder of a meeting goes beyond the short-lived gratification of regular paychecks, paid vacation, health benefits, and other trifling rewards. It is a profound joy, perhaps best compared to planting a tree and knowing that the benefits of your labor will likely extend well beyond your lifetime.

Here, then, for those of you fortunate enough to get the assignment, are some tips on taking minutes:

Write up your notes as soon possible after the meeting. The sooner you begin working with your notes, the more accurate will be your recollection of what transpired at the meeting. So don’t put it off. There are few writing assignments more gratifying than wading through page after page of hastily scrawled notes. Why wait for the fun to begin?

Be brief and to the point. Avoid the temptation to flaunt your literary talents or to show off for posterity. You’re not Charles Dickens getting paid by the word. Although your readers will no doubt enjoy reading your minutes as much as you enjoy writing them, demonstrate your talent by the quality rather than the quantity of your words.

Be specific and accurate. To serve as a permanent record of collective action, minutes must be complete and accurate. Check your facts. You might ask someone else who attended the meeting to read your copy before you distribute it. (But be careful not to let on about how much fun you’re having — your colleague may try to steal your job from you at the next meeting.)

Be objective and impartial. Minutes are not the place for impressions or subjectivity. Avoid references to "Ms. Albertson’s capable leadership" in favor of "the Chair commended Ms. Albertson for her capable leadership." You may disregard this rule, however, when referring to your own skill as recorder.

Include essential information. A standard format contains these components: a heading clearly identifying the group, the date, the names of those present (with the recorder indicated), the time the meeting was called to order, old business, new business, the time the meeting was adjourned, the time and date of the next meeting, and (depending on the level of formality) the words "Respectfully submitted" and the recorder’s signature.

Use headings to organize and emphasize each topic. Consistency in headings makes your minutes easier to read. As recommended in The Business Writer’s Handbook, you might "use the heading TOPIC, followed by the subheadings Discussion and Action Taken, for each major point discussed."

In any organization senior managers and partners understand the deep satisfaction that accompanies the act of taking minutes. For this reason, they often are willing to bestow this pleasure on the most recent arrival to the group as a kind of special welcome — even though the newcomer is obviously the person least knowledgeable about the history of the organization and the background of the issues.

I can only attribute this tendency to selflessness, generosity, and altruism. It warms my heart to think about it.




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