We all know that history belongs to the victor:
whoever writes the story of an event gets to shape how people view it.
The same is true (up to a point) for minutes.
At the most basic level, they describe “who said what” and “what was agreed” at a meeting.
But if you are the minute-taker, you have the potential to influence how the outcome of a meeting is recorded - and this can be a very powerful.
In this article I set out 3 ways that you can use minutes to achieve your goals.
1. Define your desired outcome
The best meetings have a purpose: a specific group of people are making the effort to get together in person - usually with tea/coffee and biscuits! - in order to discuss an issue, and agree a way forward.
Therefore if you are organising this meeting, you first need to identify what outcome you are seeking to achieve.
I learned this in the Cabinet Office.
My job, in the European Secretariat, was to ensure Government policy on Social Affairs issues met the Prime Minister’s objectives.
This involved both organising and chairing my own meetings; and (more importantly) organising meetings for very senior officials from across Whitehall.
My most important tasks were briefing the Chair and taking the minutes.
In each brief, the desired outcome for the meeting was already specified.
In other words, I already knew what I wanted the minutes to say BEFORE the meeting even started.
You may not want to go that far.
But it is always a good idea to work out why are you holding a meeting before you organise it; and what you want that meeting to achieve - whether it is a decision on x, or assigning tasks to particular individuals to deliver y.
2. Record the discussion the way you want
The person who commissioned and paid for the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the Battle of Hastings in 1066, was probably William the Conqueror’s brother, Bishop Odo.
He is described on the Tapestry thus: “Here Odo the Bishop holding a club strengthens the boys”.
In other words, the Tapestry is implying that he was mainly there to cheer on the Normans and didn't actually shed blood (important, for an ordained clergyman).
Given a club was a popular weapon of the nobility at the time, and Odo had a reputation as a formidable warrior - this is unlikely…
But as the person paying for the Tapestry, he could have himself described however he wanted.
Of course minutes need to be a recognisable record of the meeting - people who were there will notice if they are completely inaccurate.
But you can influence the way a debate is recorded by the detail you accord to different elements of the discussion.
If you want to highlight disagreements over an issue, you can record that in greater detail than the elements where there was consensus.
Or vice versa!
Or if you want to give a prominent role to a particular individual, you can record more of what they say in comparison with others present.
It’s not about mis-recording the meeting - but about putting the emphasis on the elements that are most important to you.
And that will then shape how the meeting is remembered, and how the actions are followed up.
3. Influence the actions
One area where the minutes need to record exactly what was agreed is the actions.
These are the fundamental output of the meeting.
WHO exactly, is going to do WHAT exactly, by WHEN exactly.
That doesn’t mean there’s no room for influence, however...
You can suggest in advance to the chair who might be appropriate for taking forward the predicted actions.
You can even suggest this in the meeting, if it’s appropriate.
Or you can suggest that other people are also given responsibility for an action, if you have concerns.
And as minute taker you can also “clarify” exactly what the actions are, or when they need to be delivered by (and in so doing, suggest additions or slightly revised deadlines).
Ultimately you need to record exactly what has been agreed - but before that point, there is room for you to influence it.
And that can have a significant impact on exactly what happens next - and your ability to achieve your goals.
So there you have three ways that you can shape the outcome of a meeting using minutes.
Things to do and consider
The next time you organise a meeting, take some time to think in advance exactly what actions you want to result: who exactly is going to do what exactly by when exactly. When you know this, you are more likely to get that result.
The next time you are asked to take the minutes of a meeting, talk to the chair in advance about what outcomes they are seeking to achieve. That will help you reflect that in the minutes.