Minutes: what to put in and what to leave out
When you are taking minutes it’s difficult to know what to leave in and what to leave out. This guide, taken from the Centre’s Taking and writing minutes book and popular Minutes training course, will help you decide what you need to include.
The main purpose of minutes is to record the decisions made by the group. Decisions are the framework around which the minutes should be written. They form the essential bones of the minutes and everything else should be written around them. So, your first criterion when deciding what to include is: what was the decision.
There is always a decision on each agenda item. The decision may be to take a particular form of action – in which case an action point may be necessary. It may be to agree a policy or procedure. It may be to receive a document without discussing it further. It may be to note information and facts brought to the attention of the meeting. It may be to defer a decision until a later date, either because further information is needed or because the meeting cannot agree. Even a rambling discussion which seems to go nowhere is taking a decision: the decision to make no decision!
Always ensure that you understand what the group wants to do at the end of each agenda item. If necessary, ask the group or the chair.
Other factors you need to consider will include the following:
- The main point
- Controversial matters
- Need to know
The main point
Always try to summarise in your minutes. Do not include the exact wording of contributions but instead summarise the main point made by a participant. Better still, summarise several speakers points together, if these form part of the same argument.
Different items raised during the discussion will vary in their significance. For example, when discussing where to hold a conference, points raised might include the cost of the venues in different areas, access and travel arrangements, the quality of refreshments and the fact that someone’s aunt lives there. While the other factors might be felt to be significant, the aunt is probably not! It requires understanding of the subject matter to be clear what is significant and what is not. This is why minute takers need to be able to understand the discussions they minute.
Matters not relevant to the meeting, or not relevant to this discussion, should not be included in the minutes. For example if, in a discussion on where to hold a conference, the meeting notes that one venue will require more staff overtime to be worked than an alternative venue, this would be a relevant point. However, if the meeting then went on to discuss overtime at length the subsequent discussion would not be relevant to the venue for the conference and should be omitted.
Where the subject under discussion is controversial or sensitive, you should include more detail in the minutes. For example, in a discussion on the conference venue, where a clear objective decision is taken to hold the conference in Birmingham and none of the delegates feel strongly about this a simple minute will be fine.
It was decided that the conference would be held in Birmingham.
However, if there are strong feelings and heated discussion, it may be better to include some of the main points of the discussion as well as the decision.
Having carefully considered the London venue, which offered greater facilities and better quality refreshments, it was decided that the conference should nevertheless be held in Birmingham as this venue was cheaper with better disability access.
The subject matter may be controversial at the meeting, as in the example above, or it may be of a generally sensitive nature. For example, if a group of doctors were discussing the use of a particular treatment that was known to have some adverse side effects, they would want to carefully record their reasons for recommending its use and the circumstances in which the treatment would be recommended. This kind of care would be necessary, even where the doctors themselves were all in agreement.
Need to know
When deciding what to include, always be aware of the audiences for the minutes. Who will read them and what do these people need to know? For example, when recording a discussion on the venue for a conference, possible audiences might be:
- Members of the organisation – they will want to know that their needs have been considered and their money well spent.
- Trustees of the organisation – they will want to know that decisions were made on sound business grounds and that financial considerations were taken into account.
- Staff of the organisation – they will need to know what they need to do next in order to organise the conference in the chosen venue.
- Regulators, eg the Audit Commission, the Charity Commission or the Housing Corporation - they will want to know that the decision was taken on sound business grounds and in line with the rules for local authorities, charities or housing associations.
This article is from the Centre’s Taking and writing minutes book by Jan Burnell. This book has been written to help you write business-like, clear and concise minutes that deal accurately with the proceedings of the meeting and that leave out all the ‘waffle'.