To be honest, the title is a bit of a misnomer – there’s no such thing as totally stress-free note-taking! That said there’s much you can do to minimise the level of stress which seems to be inherent in taking the minutes at meetings.
The following top ten tips will help you. As you read through the list you may begin to feel that attempting to apply all these points will be stressful in itself. Whilst it is true that you will need to be self-determined and proactive in order to apply them all; take heart, the effort you expend will pay dividends in the long-run.
Tip 1: Know your meeting
Each meeting is different and will place varying demands on you as a note-taker. Don’t just move from one meeting to the next hoping for the best. Think beforehand about the level of detail that will be required, get to know the participants and their strengths and weaknesses in terms of making coherent contributions, assess the skills-level of the chair and prepare accordingly. For example:
Will you need to interrupt periodically to seek clarifications?
Can you rely on summaries of the key decisions or will you have to prompt this?
Are discussions likely to be well or poorly controlled?
The more you know about the unique nature of each meeting and the people who are part of it, the more empowered you will be.
Tip 2: Know your subject
OK, you don’t have to be the fount of all knowledge; after all you’re the note-taker not the resident expert. However, you need to understand the key themes of the meeting and enough about the ‘flavour’ of the topics being discussed. This will greatly reduce stress levels. Granted, it may take a bit of effort bringing yourself up-to-speed on some topics and you’ll need to be proactive to do so, but the more you understand the discussion, the more you’ll be in a position to effectively summarise it.
Tip 3: Get the agenda right
A good agenda can help take the stress out of note-taking considerably. Obviously the topics need to be listed in a logical order, but there are two points which, if applied, will make your task much easier.
The first one relates to the purpose of each agenda item. If each agenda item has clearly stated objectives in terms of the decisions which need to be made, it will help you as note-taker to focus – you know what you’re looking for. You may not have total control here so be proactive and discuss the value of doing this with the chair. The second point relates to timing.
Again, approach the chair and try to encourage the adoption of placing timings for each item on the agenda; the meeting will be more focused and as a consequence, so will your note-taking.
Tip 4: Don't overlook the basics
If you are inadequately prepared, you will feel stressed before the meeting has even begun. Get the simple things right. For example:
If you are taking notes on your laptop, check you have enough charge to last the meeting, or
If hand writing notes, check that you have all the writing tools that you need.
Check you have all the additional documentation you need and try to get there early so you can settle in and arrange your working space.
Tip 5: Look after yourself
The note-taking phase of the minute-taking role can be extremely demanding, particularly where the meeting is overly-long or where the skills of the chairperson are poor or where the contributions from participants are difficult to decipher. If you regularly experience all three at the meetings you minute, then it might be time to consider a career change. Seriously though, you will expend a lot of energy taking notes so get a good night’s sleep before a ‘heavy’ meeting, eat slow-release energy foods and keep hydrated.
Want to learn more about minute taking? ICSA: The Governance Institute run a one-day training course on Effective Minute Taking.
Tip 6: Be assertive
Some minute takers tend to be passive by nature and during the meeting may fail to speak up to seek clarifications where necessary. That said there is a popular view that there is nothing more dangerous than a gentle person pushed too far. So, if you feel stressed and angry during a meeting for some justifiable reason, don’t go the other way. Being either passive or aggressive will achieve nothing in terms of reduced stress levels. Learn to be assertive; feel free to openly express your concerns whilst respecting the rights of others.
Tip 7: Befriend the chiarperson
I’m not talking about making holiday plans together, but it is surely the course of wisdom to develop a close working relationship with the chairperson to the extent possible. Get into the habit of meeting up for a brief discussion prior to the meeting and try to spend just a few minutes afterwards to clear up any ambiguous points. Try to develop a good understanding between the two of you regarding your respective responsibilities and roles within the minute-taking process.
Tip 8: Listen first, write second
Get this right and you’ll be laughing…………well, maybe not, but you’ll be a lot less stressed. If you’re able to listen to part of a discussion first and then jot down a few key bullet points in summary, you’ll find the note-taking process far less stressful.
Tip 9: Don't procrastinate
You know what procrastination means, don’t you? If not, I’ll tell you later! The fact is that we all procrastinate to a certain degree and it’s probably a common human tendency to put off what we don’t like doing. You cannot afford to give in to this tendency. Keep on top of your game; stay in control.
Tip 10: Be a 'people person'
Meetings are made up of people and those people have the power to make your note-taking role a total misery. So, take an interest in them, talk and converse, be friendly and arrive at the meeting early to meet and greet. The more you are interested in people, the more they will be interested in you and be willing to help you regarding points you don’t understand or other areas of concern.
So, top ten tips for stress-free minute-taking. Apply them and you will feel far less stressed at your meetings; you never know, you may even begin to enjoy them.
About the author: Rob Robson is a Principal Lecturer at the University of Greenwich Business School, lecturing in strategic management and management consultancy. Rob has been a Chartered Secretary for more than 20 years, and has wide experience of minute taking, both as a researcher and practitioner. Rob is also the co-author of Effective Minute Taking - providing practical guidance on how to take excellent minutes.