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How can you leverage your communication skills through meeting minutes?

At Duffel, we write a lot of notes. Meeting minutes from weekly team lead catch-ups; customer conversations; scoping documents; technical RFCs; retrospectives and project kick-offs. In a remote organization, as we’ve all found ourselves to be, one of the simplest, strongest tools to build a transparent culture is writing and sharing meeting minutes. It demystifies what goes on ‘behind closed doors’, democratizes agendas, and draws out insights from across the organization.

The before times

Certain meetings tend to be more effective with fewer people. Not everyone in an organization is invited to every meeting, and not just because of the impossible calendar Tetris that would ensue. Some meetings have limited attendance by their nature – managers’ catch-ups over sensitive topics or project retrospectives for collaborators and stakeholders. Some are focused on decision-making. Others are a small forum for high-bandwidth feedback. For a multitude of good reasons, most organizations end up with a bunch of meetings that only a select subset of people go to.

While it’s the utopian dream to get everyone in the room to have a completely transparent organization, it’s just not practical. In reality, unchecked meetings can become larger and larger silos within the company. Some people rail against decisions made behind closed doors, leading to disenfranchisement. Others twist their career aspirations to gain admittance to the elite groups, to be in the room where it happens. Their opaqueness gives them an air of mystique and allure despite, as I’m sure all serial-meeting-attendees will attest to, the fact they tend to be largely knowledge-sharing and minor course corrections, if not full-blown bureaucracy.

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Enter minutes

As with all things, communication is the key. Some good ground can be made up by clearly communicating the outcomes and decisions of meetings. But this still leaves room for confusion about the context, the work which went before, and, importantly, the mystery of what wasn’t shared. Instead of preparing a growing comms strategy after every meeting, you can cut out the middleman and share minutes.

During the meeting, write down what people are saying. There’s no need to be word perfect or even cover every single contribution; rough and ready shorthand is the norm. Remote meetings are fantastic for this as you’ll be at your computer already and don’t need to type them up afterward. Once the meeting is over, share with the attendees for them to tweak for clarity, publish, and you’re done. Wonderfully simple.

For recurring meetings, we use templates to cut down on the admin and provide a reliable, consistent home location for the output, so it’s just a case of cloning the template and getting started. The template also includes some explanation of the purpose of the meeting so that people coming across the notes asynchronously can put the conversations in context. It helps to have people’s names alongside their comments, particularly if there are follow-up questions, so that it’s easy for the right person to clarify what they meant in the moment or add nuance to a subject that sparks interest. It also helps observers to build up a mental map of who cares about what in the organization and then leverage this to include the right people in the right conversations to get things done.

Notable benefits

Despite their simplicity, meeting minutes have a wonderful set of qualities, beyond just transparency. They make the meetings themselves better. It’s only a small jump to tracking agendas and actions in the same space, two key qualities of effective meetings. They get people out of your meetings. Non-critical attendees can suddenly catch up asynchronously when previously they might have felt dangerously out of the loop. They let you travel back in time and answer questions like ‘Where did we get to on this last time?’. It’s likely you’re not even creating more work as almost certainly one or more keen people on the team are already keeping their own notes that this could replace.

Practicalities and tips

So, some practical tips. Have a clear scribe at the start of the meeting, and rotate through the attendees as it’s a little harder to contribute if you’re on duty. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as it changes the dynamic in each meeting. It gives quieter contributors the excuse to speak up and ask for clarity for the sake of the notes, and a distraction for the louder voices.

Make the minutes public within the company, or as large an audience as possible by default. It can be a bit scary when you get your first few comments, but people asking questions really highlights where you need to spend time on clarity and communication. Engagement is a good problem to have. After a while you’ll have built another feedback mechanism where people can share their thoughts and highlight what they feel is important, and the agenda to your next meeting will start writing itself.

Announce their availability. Sometimes you need to signal your transparency, don’t rely on people discovering your notes organically amongst the rest of the noise of your document library. After you’re done writing them, figure out some key Slack channels to broadcast them in and just put them out there.

Getting started

It’s hard to go from zero to transparent immediately. Try picking a particular recurring meeting that has a high amount of cache associated with going to, and just start taking minutes. A team-leads meeting is great for this as it balances importance with hopefully a low amount of truly confidential information. Once it’s done, share with as wide an audience as you feel comfortable. Part of the beauty of minutes is that compared to a lot of other forms of company comms, there's a lot less expectation of them being perfect. They are there as a memory jog, a little context, a conversation starter, and in almost every situation, better than nothing.

This isn’t a universal fix to be applied everywhere and sometimes it’s just not appropriate: in idea-sharing, fast moving, or tiny groups. Other times, some sensitive topics might need to be glossed over in the notes to protect individuals or groups – that’s also fine. Just ask the note-taker to pause for a moment. If you find yourself speaking ‘off-the-record’ more often than not, then maybe that meeting isn’t a good fit, and structured, controlled comms is the way to go. Too many of these meetings and you’ve got a signal of other trust issues you might have in the organization.

Once you have a couple of meetings operating with minutes, hopefully, momentum will catch. Thankfully, transparency is on our side and its public nature makes it much easier to see when this is working, for others to follow in your meeting’s footsteps, and for you to signal and reinforce good behaviors.

Close out

But first, just try taking some simple minutes. You’ll be surprised at how many people care about what goes on in your boring meetings.

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