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Effective Minute-Taking – Part I: Pre-Meeting Preparation

As one meeting expert points out, 60% to 70% of your most effective time will likely be spent in the pre-meeting stage. The work you do during this phase serves as a foundation; it will help ensure your success upon entering the meeting room.

Here are eight pre-meeting steps you should take:

  1. Choose your technology
    One of the first questions to answer is: “What tool will you use to capture information?” Some people still use shorthand, but nowadays people more often use a laptop, which can be a real time-saver. You need to determine which method is going to work best for you.

    Either way, you can use audio and/or video recordings as a back-up; however, it is highly recommended you get permission for that first. You need to find out what the rules are, based on where you work and the event itself.

  2. Review previous minutes
    Before you start, it’s a good idea to review the minutes from previous meetings. Notice the organization of the minutes—the amount of detail, phraseology and other characteristics.
  3. Obtain the meeting agenda and other pertinent materials
    The agenda for an informal meeting lists only the items the attendees will discuss during the meeting. But the agenda for a more formal meeting could list the times, the events, speakers, rooms and activities. Make sure you get a copy of the agenda beforehand, especially if you are not the person who helped prepare it.

    Why are agendas important? They show the time frames for each segment of the meeting. They also make you aware of what you can expect from the discussion. Other materials you might want are minutes of past meetings, handouts and glossaries of relevant subjects.

    Ask the meeting chair or facilitator to copy you on all materials sent prior to the meeting and to send you an advance copy of any materials being handed out at the meeting. Let’s hope the meeting organizer is an organized person. Sometimes that’s not the case, which is why it’s especially important for you to gather those materials ahead of time.

  4. Speak with the chairperson before the meeting
    Go through the agenda together to establish the main topics and the group’s goals. Then determine with your chairperson whether the meeting is going to be a formal meeting or an informal one. Often that dictates the type of notes you’re going to have to take, as well as the format you’re going to use when finishing the minutes.

    During the conversation, also decide upon a signal for when you may need clarification. For example, say you are in the meeting and all of a sudden people are talking all at once, or you don’t quite understand the person who is speaking. How are you going to signal the meeting leader in a way that’s appropriate and doesn’t distract the group?

    One appropriate way to signal might be a raised-eyebrow look that says, “Hmmm, I didn’t get that” or “What was that person trying to tell me?” Another signal you could use is pointing a finger upward, a slight wave of your hand or a time-out signal.

    Agree with the chairperson on what that signal is going to be so he or she will know how to help you during the meeting.

    Decipher “gobbledygook” in advance. DHS and Child Support Services use a lot of jargon. So how do you deal with this during minute-taking? Answer: Prepare in advance.

    First, go to the person who wrote the agenda and if there are any specific words, terms or jargon that might be used in the meeting or that are common to this particular group. Ask for explanations of words that are not familiar to you.

    If you can already anticipate that certain jargon will be used, you may want to search online in advance.

    Consult a source who might be an expert in the subject. For example, if the meeting is computer related, check with someone from the IT area.

    Also, ask your peers as they could be more familiar with particular terms.

  5. Arrive early to check equipment and materials
    Of course, you’ll want to check your audio or video equipment in advance. Make sure you have enough batteries and extension cords. If you bring a laptop, make sure you have every accessory that goes with it.

    Check your recording device prior to the meeting. Set your volume level by walking around the room and experimenting with audio. (Even so, throughout the meeting you may have to check the volume occasionally, because there may be a speaker who is more soft-spoken.)

    Some additional materials to bring: sticky notes, highlighters, a red pen, a note-taking pad, extra pens, note pads for visitors, any necessary file folders and meeting handouts.

    Make sure you have a copy of the agenda—and bring extra copies, in the event the meeting chair forgets to bring them.

  6. Create a seating chart
    This is a simple but good idea, especially if you don’t know the attendees or have a large group—eight to 10 people—in the meeting. Before everyone comes in the room, draw a picture of the table in your notes. Then, as each person takes a seat, write his or her name in the right position.
  7. Determine your position at the table
    Ideally, you want to sit next to the meeting leader or chairperson. That way you can more easily signal the chair if you need clarification. The chairperson is likely to appreciate the strategic positioning as well. It’s easier for him or her to say quietly something like, “Oh, did you capture that? That was really important what Bill just said.”

    If you can’t do that, then position yourself at the table where you can see the meeting leader and he or she can see you.

  8. Introduce yourself
    If you don’t know some of the attendees, extend your hand for a handshake and introduce yourself and your role at the meeting. Remember to smile and be confident. It’s good for people to get to know you.
Note: Try to use the DHS Meeting Agenda and the DHS Meeting Minutes templates located on the InfoNet, or something similar to them.