Sit through enough meetings and you’ll start to think their only purpose is to book another meeting.
While your main responsibility is to always make sure you’re planning (and attending) effective meetings, it’s what you do after the meeting that counts. But it isn’t always clear what that is. Without a clear process for taking meeting notes and following up on action items, meetings blur into one another with no real progress being made.
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If you’ve ever tried to take meeting notes, you know the problem. You go in wanting to record and analyze what’s being said but end up with vague scribbles and arrows that made sense at the time, but now feel like you’re deciphering some ancient language.
Either that or you spend the whole meeting trying to write everything down only to realize you didn’t understand any of it. Either way, the result is the same: wasted time and another meeting to actually move the project forward.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
In this guide, we’re going to run you through a simple process for preparing for, writing, and sharing meeting notes that actually get things done.
Meeting notes aren’t meeting minutes (but they can include a lot of the same information!)
Overall, meetings get a bad rep. Most people see them as a waste of time. However, the truth is that one of the best things you can do is put a bunch of smart people in a room together to share information.
However, this is where most people go wrong. It’s not enough to get people in a room together, you need to know what to do next.
There are two tools for capturing information from a meeting: Minutes and notes. And while they’re similar in some respects, they serve different purposes for different people. Let’s start by clearing that up.
Meeting notes are your personal references from the meeting, including ideas, goals, deadlines, data, next steps, and anything else that you found interesting and useful.
Each person takes their own meeting notes and their power comes from synthesizing your own context and knowledge with what’s being brought up in the meeting.
On the other hand, meeting minutes are a formal record of what took place during a meeting and include:
- A full list of attendees and who’s missing
- The meeting’s start and end time
- Key topics that were covered
- Any action items or decisions made during the meeting and who’s responsible for them
The difference with meeting minutes is that a single person is responsible for taking them and they follow a very structured process. (Meeting minutes are legal documents and need to be done in a very specific way).
What’s missing in meeting minutes is your context. While you can get the barebones information from a meeting in the minutes, they don’t capture those spur-of-the-moment insights and breakthroughs that push a project forward.
How do you take meeting notes that really work? Make your meetings matter more in 5 steps.
So how do you take meeting notes that really work?
It’s the same process as what makes a meeting work: planning, structure, and follow-through.
While meeting notes aren’t as structured as minutes, you still need to set up some guardrails. The easiest way to do this is with a meeting notes template—a simply formatted document that helps guide you through the note-taking process.
Better meeting notes start with better meetings.
We’ve put together a downloadable template to use in your next meeting here.
But first, let’s cover what you’ll actually be taking notes of and how to use your meeting notes template in the best way possible:
1. Work off your meeting agenda
In our Guide to Running an Effective Meeting, we broke down the number one rule for meetings that don’t waste time:
“Don’t just set a meeting and hope that things will progress on their own. You need to steer the ship. This starts with understanding exactly what you want to get out of the meeting. If there’s no clear goal, no one will know what’s expected of them.”
That clear goal comes in the form of an agenda. Not only does a meeting agenda put everyone on the same page, but it’s also a perfect outline for your meeting notes.
Instead of desperately scrawling out key points, set up your meeting notes template in advance from the agenda. Write down each point and leave space to record a brief summary and any outcomes, ideas, and notes. Limit each key point to a few sentences.
However, not every meeting has an agenda (especially the informal or impromptu ones that need meeting notes the most!) In this case, leave the space blank in your template and fill it in as you go along.
2. Focus on formatting
Even with an agenda, meetings rarely go exactly as planned. However, you can make up for that lack of structure with a clearly formatted meeting notes template.
Here are a few items you should include
- Name, date and time of the meeting (or link to the video chat you’re using)
- What is the meeting’s purpose?
- Who’s supposed to be there? (You can update this if key people are missing and you need to follow up with them)
- Key points from your agenda
- Your questions that need to be answered
- Decisions made
- Action items including assignee, due date, and next steps
The proper format for your meeting notes makes sure they’re actionable, usable, and contextual. Even better, it gives you space and structure to think through the meeting before you even attend. It’s like turning a blank canvas into a color-by-numbers. All you have to do is stay within the lines.
3. Make sure you have clear action items (i.e. organize for action)
The point of a meeting is to create action. You go in with questions and come out with solutions (or at the very least, an idea of what to do next).
In business terms, these are called action items and they’re an important part of your meeting notes.
It’s easy to make promises in a meeting and then step outside and say “What was I supposed to do, again?”
An action item is a discrete task that answers three questions:
- Who? This isn’t just who’s responsible for the task (i.e. you). But also, who you’ll be working with or other people you’re dependent on for finishing this task.
- What? This is a short description of the task. Keep it to one or two sentences and focus on action verbs (i.e. “Review the product backlog and prepare ideas for the feature prioritization meeting.”)
- When? This is when the action item needs to be completed or followed up. Use a specific date and time to stay accountable.
Action items are what make meeting notes matter and ensure you actually get an ROI on your meeting time. Make sure you know exactly what’s expected of you next.
4. Leave space for ideas and creative thoughts
Meeting notes aren’t just about capturing facts (that’s what your meeting minutes are for!)
You should use your notes as an opportunity to capture all the ideas and thoughts that pop in your head throughout the meeting. There are two ways you can format this in your meeting notes:
- Leave a dedicated space at the bottom for ideas. This lets you quickly jot down thoughts as they come up and know where to look for them later. The downside of this is sometimes you’ll lose context about why you thought this was a good idea in the first place.
- Split your meeting notes template in two. Draw a line down the middle of your template doc (or slightly to one side). The left side is for your more formal notes. While the right is for ideas that come up. This gives you context and helps keep ideas close to their key points. However, it can also make your meeting notes template a bit messy.
There’s no “right” way to go about capturing ideas in your meeting notes. Try both methods and see which one works best for you.
5. Treat your meeting notes like knowledge management (include meeting minutes if available)
Your meeting notes are part of your team’s knowledge. The more you can share them with others, the better off you’ll all be.
Make sure you use a system to keep your meeting notes somewhere public and share them with stakeholders or other relevant people on your team who missed the meeting.
After the meeting: Turn action items into tasks in your project management tool
The best way to share meeting notes, make sure you always have a clean and structured template ready to go, and turn your ideas and decisions into action items is to use a project management tool like Planio.
Planio is where you store everything you’ll be discussing during your meeting, including issues, tasks, project backlogs, sprint planning, and more. This makes it an ideal space to also store your meeting notes as you’ll be able to link to and reference previous issues, add context and even assign and track action items.
Let’s take a quick look at a few ways you can use Planio to master your meeting notes.
First off, Planio Wikis are the perfect place to store your meeting notes.
Wikis are fully customizable with rich text and formatting, intra-wiki links (as well as links to tasks, projects, repository files, and more), image support, and more.
This gives you a great place to track the progress of your action items. Each action item from your meeting notes can be moved into its own issue, assigned to a teammate, and given a deadline. You can even link back to the meeting notes to add context to the task.
Finally, all of these meeting notes live in a secure and organized space with full version history and permissions. This means that if you ever need to go back and see what was decided in a meeting, it’s waiting for you there.
Free meeting notes template to keep you organized
We’ve talked a lot about the importance of using a meeting notes template in this post. And the good news is that you don’t have to build one from scratch!
Download this markdown-friendly version of our meeting notes template to use in Planio or simply as it is.
10 best practices for writing meeting notes that inspire action
Better meeting notes start with better meetings. And we’ve written at length before about the right ways to bring your team together. However, once you’ve got the basics down (and your meeting notes template ready) there are a few things you should know.
1. Start with pen and paper (but transfer to a digital tool right after)
There’s a science around taking better notes. And while we think that your meeting notes should always end up in a project management tool like Planio, they shouldn’t necessarily start there.
Instead, studies show that the best tool for taking notes is a simple pen and paper. There are a few reasons why this makes sense.
Taking meeting notes by hand forces you to be economical. You have to be purposeful about what you record and only focus on what’s important.
First, when we type notes there’s a tendency to try to capture everything verbatim. But either you can’t type fast enough and lose your train of thought. Or, you can keep up but don’t actually get to be a part of the meeting. (Not to mention all of the distractions–like email and chat–just waiting for you on your computer).
Writing by hand forces you to be economical with your notetaking. You have to be purposeful about what you record and only focus on what’s important. Plus, it makes it much easier to transfer your notes into a tool like Planio.
If your goal is to capture everything for meeting minutes, go digital. If your goal is to be active in the meeting and take notes that will actually inspire action and make sense, go analog.
2. Pick the right method for the right meeting
So how do you make sure your handwritten notes make sense? You need to pick the right method for taking notes in the moment.
First off, you should mirror the meeting notes template above to make sure you’re covering all of your bases. Next, pick a method that is easy and lets you stay connected to what’s actually going on in the meeting. Here’s a couple to try:
The Cornell Method
The Cornell Note Taking System involves splitting your page into basic notes on the right and key points and takeaways on the left. The bottom of the page is reserved for a short summary of your notes.
Name, date, time, and goal
|Key Point 1:
|Key Point 2:
|Key Point 3:
|Key Point 4:
| Summary of notes
This is a simple structure that mirrors our template but is quick and easy to jot down in meetings where you don’t have an agenda.
The Quadrants method is an even simpler way to take notes by hand (and is used by people like Bill Gates).
Take your piece of paper and divide it into four sections:
- Questions: Anything that comes up during the meeting and that you get an answer to.
- Notes: Thoughts, ideas, and discussion items that come up.
- Personal action items: What you’re responsible for delivering.
- Assign to others: What others need to do or information you need to pass onto stakeholders.
This is a little messier and harder to fit into the template above, but it still manages to quickly capture relevant information. Use it when you’re pulled into a meeting and don’t have time to prepare.
There’s a science around taking better notes. Make sure you use the best method for you.
3. Don’t try to write down everything!
If there’s one best practice you take away from all of this it should be keep your meeting notes short.
There’s no point in trying to write down every word. Focus on your key points, takeaways, questions, and ideas, and leave the rest to the meeting minutes.
In the end, brevity is a notetaker’s best friend.
4. Make your notes scannable
Structure and formatting are what turn meeting notes from dense to delightful.
Make sure your meeting notes use clear headlines and structuring so you can quickly find what you’re after. At a minimum, use the headlines in the template above. However, for more intense strategic meetings or ones with a lot of key points, you might want to use sub-headers or other ways to break down your categories.
|Key Point: Feature Planning for 2020
- Key Point 1:
- Key Point 2:
- Key Point 1:
- Key Point 2:
- Key Point 1:
- Key Point 2:
- Key Point 1:
- Key Point 2:
5. Use codes to highlight important points
As you write down your pen-and-paper meeting notes, you’ll want to quickly mark down what’s most important. Rather than make a mess of your notes, try using some codes:
- Add a “⭐” in front of key topics or issues that get a lot of attention
- Number your top 3 responsibilities in order of importance
- Use “❓” before questions that you still need an answer for
- Abbreviate as much as possible (without losing meaning)
6. Context matters (but use it sparingly)
At some point in your life, you’ve probably looked back on notes you took and had no idea what you were thinking. Context helps us understand why a decision was made and how we came to it in the first place. And while your meeting notes can benefit from context, too much of it will bog them down.
Use the top section of your meeting notes template–the goal and purpose–to provide a bit of context so you know what you were thinking going into the meeting. Keep this to a maximum of one or two sentences.
Content marketing Q2 planning meeting
- Goals and purpose: After seeing success with our content plan from last quarter, this meeting is to discuss how we can keep growing and innovate on our current content calendar. Key topics will be publishing schedule, social media strategy, and working with influencers.
7. Answer some simple questions before the meeting
A lot of meetings could probably be replaced by an email (or better task management) with just a few questions (mostly “What’s the point of this meeting?”)
When it comes to taking effective meeting notes, it pays to ask some of those questions in advance. Look at your agenda and spend a few minutes on each key point. What questions do you have? How can you prepare so that the meeting moves more quickly?
8. Focus on what comes next
While notes are making a record of the past, your thoughts should be squarely on the future.
It’s ok if you miss taking notes on some discussion points. What’s not ok is if you miss out on an action item or due date. Make sure you’re recording items as they come up and then spend a few minutes after the meeting summing up your responsibilities in your own voice.
This will help solidify them in your memory and also help others notice if you’ve got something wrong.
9. Make decisions and action items ultra-clear
For anything that requires your action, you want to make sure you’re writing it down as clearly as possible. If you can’t, that’s a pretty clear signal that you need to talk things through with your team.
When writing out action items, you want to make sure you’re following the 3Cs:
- Clear: Is it instantly apparent what needs to get done? Do you answer who, what, and when?
- Concise: Is it one or two sentences long? If not, do you understand it enough to make it shorter?
- Consistent: Are you using the same format so it’s easy to scan your notes?
(Read more about how to write useful articles and notes in our Guide to Writing Knowledge Base Articles!)
10. Share meeting notes with stakeholders
Meeting notes are great for you. But they’re even better for people who weren’t able to make the meeting but still need to know what’s going on.
If you have a project communication plan, refer to that to find out who needs to know about the meeting’s outcomes. Then, send them a link to your Planio meeting notes or assign them an issue with their action items.
If you’ve used our template and are keeping your meeting notes in a Wiki, they’ll have access to everything needed to keep the project moving.
Make your meetings matter with better meeting notes
Taking effective meeting notes is an underrated skill. But once you master the basics and start using a meeting notes template, you’ll become more organized and productive. Even better, the more actionable you become, the fewer meetings you’ll have to actually attend!