Abstract visual of lines in different colours, representing notes taken. A ‘thumbs up’ icon is stamped on top.

How to take meeting notes people actually use

is fortunate to have one of the best account teams in the business. They’re organizational wizards, with enough optimism and patience to facilitate international peace talks. We asked Account Supervisor Mary Huang to share her trade secrets on managing complex projects and documenting each step.

As every creative person knows, ideas are easy. Having a clear sense of the path to execute is not, especially when there are so many stakeholders giving input!

I like to think of organizing my notes as telling a story — a story that helps us move along on a journey. I’m making an action-oriented record to guide everyone, and a documentation of how we got there to minimize wheel-spinning or rehashing of key points.

If you’re a project manager, it’s a great opportunity to reinforce important steps and help guide people to a clear vision of what was agreed upon and what’s going to happen next.

5 steps to summarizing meetings

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1. Tackle it as soon as possible after the meeting

The longer you wait, the more chances that you’ll forget and the less you’ll be able to decipher your chicken scratch writing or hastily typ(o)ed notes. The sooner you get your notes out, the faster you can get everyone aligned and on the same vision. This will also help minimize confusion and reduce duplicated efforts from everyone acting on their own with different interpretations of what the decisions and priorities are.

The lines of text on the page move themselves into 3 spaced out groups, each a different colour.
The lines of text on the page move themselves into 3 spaced out groups, each a different colour.

2. Review your notes and group them into logical buckets

Good summary notes are not regurgitated or verbatim scripts of what happened in a meeting. (Though sometimes I might actually take notes as if they were transcripts, when I’m speed-typing!)

In meetings, people may often talk circles around an idea, running the same grooves over and over like a broken record. This isn’t pointless — it can be important in actual meetings to help align everyone and reinforce key decisions. But it’s redundant in summaries. Sometimes people flag the same statement several times in slightly different ways. Reviewing lets you pick out the strongest iterations of a perspective. It’s also natural to come back to ideas or topics already discussed as people think of new relevant connections. In summaries, you can bring them back together.

The groups of lines on the page rearrange themselves.

3. Organize them into a progression that makes sense

If the meeting had an agenda, that’s a natural way to lay order to the points, but there are other options. For example, move from broader ideas to more specific ideas. A kick off could have a natural progression of topics like this:

  • Vision and objectives
  • Previous materials developed
  • Design preferences
  • Project management considerations (e.g., timelines, availabilities, key contacts)
  • Etc.

Or you could group things based on a theme, e.g.,

  • Script feedback
  • Imagery feedback
  • Items that affect timelines/budget

It’s also helpful to separate action items from discussions/decisions that are more “important or useful things to bear in mind.”

The text lines grow shorter on the page to a more condensed version.

4. Clean them up

Tighten the language, summarize the ideas. Aim for clarity as much as possible. Sometimes simplicity may have to be sacrificed for clarity, and sometimes it’s helpful to reuse terminology and phrases from key stakeholders. This really enables people to see their own feedback or perspectives and can be very powerful in reinforcing the outcomes of a meeting.

A summary block appears above the condensed text with 3 pointer bullets.

5. Pull out key action items

I like to make a section called “Next Steps” and put it right at the beginning of the email. This is a bullet list where every action item has a clear party/person responsible and also a due date or an ideal date when an update is available. Put everything else underneath this list for reference.

See the example below:

Next steps
Client to-dos:
September 3, noon—Provide feedback, including:
∙ Preferred concept and revisions needed
∙ Confirmed final copy
∙ Confirmed stock assets to be purchased
Context to-dos:
September 10, EoD—Provide revised concept for approval
Summary of discussion
Below are key points from the discussion for your reference. We will wait for your confirmation before proceeding with any direction.
General concepts feedback:
∙ Prefer Concept 1 colours
∙ Prefer Concept 2 text treatment — really bold and effective
∙ Can call-to-action from Concept 2 be integrated into Concept
∙ Slide 5 — can we have two people instead of one?
∙ Would like to see more use of secondary brand colour
∙ Overall imagery: need to include more representation from industry [X]
Scope consideration (client to discuss internally and provide update):
∙ Potential increase to the budget for stock assets?

Good meeting notes can be helpful for all types and sizes of projects. They help you pick up where you left off or understand how a team arrived at a certain conclusion. They’re also handy to have for reference when briefing or onboarding new participants. For me, they’ve been a lifesaver particularly on projects that pick up again after weeks or even months of being on hold.

What I’ve outlined above are general principles that work for me. If you adopt them and they work for you, great. The key is to improve, iterate and create something useful for you and your team.

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