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29 October 2010

Meeting Minutes and Other "Menial" Tasks

A.S. asks,
How many [technical writers] record meeting minutes for electronic distribution. In other words, perform duties of a secretary or stenographer? There are places where people view technical writers as slightly more expensive secretaries, in which you're expected to take meeting minutes. In most of my jobs, however, it hasn't been my responsibility nor do I think it should be considered part of the core set of expectations. It becomes a burden and takes away time from my normal writing and editing responsibilities. I'm encountering it more and more in job descriptions.

However the one recurring opinion I have developed from taking meeting minutes is that there are so many people who do not know how to conduct a meeting and manage the time.

I empathize with A.S. regarding the stress of having yet another serving of work laid on your already full plate.

He actually raises two issues:

  • Should technical writers' duties include taking minutes?
  • What should our attitudes be about unexpected duties?
Taking Minutes

Do not underestimate the challenge and prestige of recording minutes.

Producing useful minutes takes a familiarity with the players, the meeting topic(s), and the history behind the topic(s). Some meetings, such as department meetings, have topics that everybody understands. A summer intern could handle those minutes. However, other meetings, such as a corrective action board or a design review, require backgrounds far above what any secretary or stenographer has.

Stenographers take dictation. That's fine if you want everything said in the record or want someone at a higher level to edit down their transcript. It's similar with secretaries. In a technical or management-level discussion, neither has the expertise to decide what to include, and getting participants to stop and dictate during a meeting is nearly impossible.

Personally, the more content-rich the meeting, the more I struggle with taking minutes. I miss too much information when I stop listening so I can write. (I've never been able to listen and write at the same time.) Fortunately, since too many conflicts arose over what was said, I was allowed to use a recorder in my last job.

  • Good: Recordings created objective evidence that settled a few disputes. 
  • Better: The presence of objective evidence prevented many disputes. 
  • Best: It freed me to focus on comprehending the flow of information presented by the subject matter experts so I could record not just what was said, but what was meant.
Taking minutes creates the wonderful benefit of turning each meeting into a course. Using a recorder, you get to listen to subject matter experts twice. During the second hearing, you already know the context, so discussions make more sense. Not only does the repetition increase retention, but so do the transcription, editing, and reading of the information.

Serving at the core of meetings lets you into the inner circle. You get to know the experts and managers -- and they get to know you -- as you interact to ask for clarification or to gather presentation packages during preparation. (Maintaining a library of those presentations can make you quite a resource, too!)

The learning element has another advantage in that, over time, you become the historian on many subjects. Our vice president constantly looked to his board facilitators (who recorded the minutes) for background on different issues. This not only gave us visibility, it also gave us influence.

Depending on the meeting, producing useful minutes both adds to your value and creates value -- and visibility -- in which you can take pride.

Attitude toward Unexpected Work

For perspective: Many leaders do work that subordinates ought to do. If something inconveniences you, a contributor, it inconveniences leaders even more. Tasks belong at the lowest competent rung of the ladder. As indispensable as you think you are, the time of those paid more than you has even more value.

If the job descriptions includes taking minutes, then it is one of your "normal writing and editing responsibilities." On the other hand, employers do not chisel job descriptions into stone (unless you work for a union). If your supervisor approves the task, then it is one of your "normal writing and editing responsibilities." If that overloads you, pass the responsibility for what does not get done to your supervisor by laying out your goals and tasks and asking him or her to prioritize them.

If my supervisor weren't available and I did no want the task, I would answer the organizer, "I'll be happy to take minutes this time, but next time, could you pass that through [insert your supervisor's name here] so he can adjust my priorities?" This will preserve your image as flexible, cooperative, and supportive while protecting you from future disruptions to your scheduled workload due to poor planning on the meeting organizer's part.

A.S's observation about meeting owners lacking skills for conducting meetings is true. It is also an opportunity. If you have (or can acquire) such skills, you could offer to moderate and facilitate. (By moderate, I mean act as an MC to keep things on track. By facilitate, I mean coordinate preparation and follow-up.) Of course, you need the meeting owner to agree to back you up. Moderating a meeting and taking minutes forms a package that will portray you as a leader and benefit your career.

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