Poorly Written Meeting Minutes Waste Hours
in Reading Time

by Marti Smiley Childs and Jeff March

Business meetings, though often disparaged, provide a forum through which participants can authorize actions and present, debate and resolve problems. An essential part of the meeting process is documentation of proceedings in a written summary called the "minutes." But despite their name, the minutes of many corporate, government and community meetings can consume unnecessary hours in reading time if they're unskillfully written.

The verbosity common in meeting minutes is often the result of failure to recognize that taking minutes is different from taking dictation. Minutes should not contain a verbatim account of all discussion that took place during a meeting. Resist the urge to include Connie's indignant objection to Phil's clearly self-serving comments. Heck, Phil attended the meeting mainly because of the free blueberry muffins and fruit juice. Instead, minutes should document only official decisions and actions that occur during a meeting. The only verbatim language required in meeting minutes is the precise wording of motions that were passed. A meeting secretary who is uncertain of the exact wording of a motion should ask it to be re-read before its passage.

The person who is designated to record minutes ideally should not be a participant in the meeting, but rather an observer whose role is simply to document proceedings objectively and accurately. The recording secretary is in effect the historian for the meeting body. Recording accurate minutes requires concentration, an understanding of the fundamental issues at hand, and the ability to accurately summarize by excluding irrelevant material and distilling the key points.

While tape recording a meeting can be useful, doing so can also be an impediment to prompt completion and distribution of the draft of the minutes because of the temptation to replay lengthy passages -- if not the entire meeting. For greater efficiency, learn to rely upon your own note-taking on the spot, and quickly distribute the first draft of the minutes to meeting participants. If the minutes inadvertently contain an error, one or more of the participants will surely say so before official adoption of the minutes at the next meeting. That, after all, is the purpose of distributing a draft.

Some styles for minutes are more limiting than others, and can be classified into three formats:

  1. "Report": a comprehensive record of all discussions, written in a narrative style that includes the names of all speakers, movers and seconders of any motions;
  2. "Minutes of narration": a legal form that includes a summary of principal discussions.
  3. "Minutes of resolution": a compact legal form that documents the precise wording of resolutions that were passed, but does not indicate the names of individuals who introduced or seconded motions.

A recording secretary should use a journalistic approach when writing in the "report" or "minutes of narration" style, clearly stating who introduced motions and who must act as a result of their passage. That means avoiding passive-voice constructions (such as "during discussion an amendment to the motion was introduced") and instead giving credit (or blame) for the amendment ("Phil introduced an amendment to begin lunch hour in the Los Angeles office at 9 a.m. in order to coincide with the Baltimore office"). If Phil's inane motion does manage to win passage, don't merely say the motion was seconded and approved; specify that Edna seconded the motion, and then document the vote.

If the measure passed "without objection" during the vote, or if the presiding officer used a voice vote to determine passage, say so. If, however, a show of hands or a paper ballot was used, the secretary should include the count in the minutes.

And don't feel obligated to report that Phil took three leftover blueberry muffins back to his office.


EditPros / writing, editing & employee training
Marti Childs  marti@editpros.com Jeff March jeffm@editpros.com
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