Jan den Holder.
Aspects of minute-taking as a profession: who takes the minutes - where, why and how?
Lecture on the occasion of the 45th Intersteno Convention in
1. What is to be understood by minute-taking?
Minute-taking comprises two activities: 1) to note down in a concise way the matters that are being dealt with and decided on during a meeting; 2) the editing of these notes to produce the minutes of the meeting. Those present at the meeting must afterwards agree with these minutes and therefore the approval of the minutes of the last meeting is always one of the first items on the agenda of any meeting. The approved minutes are the legal evidence of what was being dealt with and decided on at a particular meeting.
Meetings are being held on all levels and therefore minute-taking takes place on all levels: from the annual members' meeting of the lawn tennis club to the board meeting of an industrial company and to the Council of Ministers of the European Union.
2. Reasons for professional minute-taking
The more important, higher or powerful the body that is assembled for a meeting, the more meaningful and momentous the minutes of such a meeting are. Hence the greater the need of their reliability and accuracy, and also the greater the importance of their timely appearance. On these managerial, administrative or governmental levels minute-taking cannot depend on the voluntary assistance of a board member or other person present at the meeting.
Professionalizing of minute-taking, i.e. making it a salaried job, warrants that 1) the minute-taker has sufficient expertise; 2) there will always appear draft minutes in time.
3. Who is taking the minutes on a professional basis?
The professional minute-taker may be a person who takes the minutes only from time to time, as part of the job he fulfils, or the minute-taking may be his main occupation. Furthermore the professional minute-taker may be an employee of the body that calls the meeting or he may be working as a freelancer or otherwise on a temporary basis.
I shall argue why it is plausible that minute-taking in most cases will be part of a broader job and that such a person, taking the minutes from time to time, will be an employee of the body that calls the meeting. It then also becomes clear why there are not many professional minute-takers who are working on a freelance basis. To this end it is advisable to make a comparison with the stenographer.
4. The difference between minute-taker and stenographer
The professionals whose occupation it is to make verbatim reports of meetings and court sessions -- we shall call them stenographers -- are far more numerous than the ones that have minute-taking as their main job. Stenographers can be called in to record verbatim any meeting or conference and that without much preparation. They are proficient in producing within a very short time a well-edited verbatim report of speeches and discussions, nowadays mostly with the help of tape recording, voice recording etc.
Minute-taking on the other hand often concerns the concise registration of managerial or administrative or technicalities. This requires, for the same meeting, a greater knowledge of the matter at issue, a greater familiarity with procedures and more insight then is necessary for the verbatim recording of the spoken word. A minute-taker must well know the sphere of action and procedures of the body that is assembled and, preferably, also the personalities of those present and their views. This knowledge, that makes it easier to take the minutes, is present in secretaries at all levels. By taking the minutes these functionaries exploit the knowledge they have already acquired in other parts of their job. On the other hand, if minute-taking is a person's only occupation he must acquire the necessary knowledge separately -- either for the account of his employer or for his own account if he is a freelancer. This counteracts the spreading of that particular kind of occupation. Professionals which do have minute-taking as their main job are mainly working for organisations that have meetings of a political or advisory character. These meetings demand another kind of minutes, somewhat more extensive, than the regular board and management minutes. These minute-takers are doing a job that is comparable to some of the work of stenographers.
5. Concise reporting
Both the minute-taker and the stenographer may record meetings that are not directly meant to take decisions nor are these meetings on an equal level with the parliamentary debate that needs verbatim recording. These are for example committee meetings meant to take stock of the opinions of political parties or social organisations about governmental policy, to negotiate about it or to reach agreement on it. It is then up to the minute-taker or stenographer to select and summarise the relevant parts of the discussion and thus produce a concise, well-structured report of the meeting. The minute-taker, to this end, will have to find his way in a less concrete and less businesslike discussion than he is used to. The stenographer in turn will experience that, to be able to select and summarise the relevant parts of the discussion, he has to study to a greater extent the underlying documents than is the case with verbatim recording.
It is against this background that the Dutch stenographers may voice their preference for certain fields of policy. The staff of our stenographic service then tries to make allowance for these preferences when assigning the concise reporting of committee meetings to individual stenographers.
Minute-takers working freelance prefer to record for longer periods the meetings of the same body or committee. In this way they acquire the necessary special knowledge of the sphere of action and procedures of this body or committee and in this way they also acquire experience with the particular kind of minutes that are required. Switching to a new body or committee means also a new period of mastering these details which in the beginning seriously slows down the speed with which the minutes or the report can be produced.
6. Where is it that professional minute-taking takes place?
In general the answer to this question is: everywhere where a meeting consists of people who by virtue of their profession or official function are taking part in this meeting.
Minute-taking in its essential form mainly takes place in meetings that have a managerial, administrative character: board meetings, staff or management meetings, council meetings, members' meetings. Here it is the secretary of for example the general manager or the chairman of the board who most likely will minute the meeting and afterwards make the draft minutes under the supervision of his or her boss. These are minutes that typically are presented for approval at the next meeting.
Next to these managerial, administrative meetings there are the more politically orientated meetings where, as we saw, the recording is not strictly done in the form of minutes but more in the form of concise reporting. These reports are somewhat less official and not always presented at a next meeting for approval, although the individual speaker may have the right of correction.
7. Why is minute-taking done?
In a strict sense minute-taking is done to put in writing the decisions and agreements that are reached at a meeting, so as to avoid that afterwards there may be misconceptions about these decisions and agreements and to ensure that they will be executed and adhered to.
Often it is expected from minutes that they contain at least the grounds on which a certain decision was taken. The minute-taker then has to give a summary of the relevant parts of the discussion and its conclusions. To these extensive minutes usually a list of decisions and actions is attached, out of which something like a decisions bookkeeping may develop. This makes it possible to monitor which decisions already have been fulfilled and which have not.
In the Dutch Parliament we know something like it, where the concise reporting of committee meetings is concerned. The clerk of the committee notes down the promises and commitments made by the minister or state-secretary during the meeting of the committee. The resulting list of promises and commitments is being read aloud by the chairman of the committee at the end of the meeting. This list constitutes as it were the instant minutes of the meeting and the stenographer has to incorporate it in his report, where it offers a summary of the results of the meeting.
The recording of the meetings of advisory bodies fulfils more than one function. Besides reporting what was being discussed, these reports also register the process of reaching agreements and compromises, aimed at formulating a unanimous advice to e.g. the government. Compromises that have been reached during a meeting are minuted by the reporter and at the next meeting, by approving the minutes, confirmed. The clerk of the advisory body will be able to use these reports when formulating the draft advice.
8. How are the minutes taken?
Strictly speaking it suffices for minute-taking to take notes during the meeting in normal handwriting. In this case there has to be confidence in the special ability of the minute-taker to take down the essential elements of the discussion in a trustworthy way. In stead of pen and paper we see today that sometimes notebooks are used by minute-takers. This offers more possibilities to classify the typed notes during the meeting. When afterwards editing the minutes, it comes in handy when the notes are already electronically available.
The registration techniques as used by stenographers for the verbatim recording of meetings -- pen shorthand, machine shorthand, stenomask, sound and voice recording -- are, with the exception of pen shorthand and sound recording, not used by minute-takers. The minute-taker, just because he has to make a summary report, must devote most of his attention to the discussion and proceedings. For only in this manner it is possible to distinguish between essential matters, that have to be minuted, and subordinate matters that may be skipped.
It seldom happens that the minutes are ready immediately after the meeting. The usual procedure is that the notes taken during the meeting are afterwards, in a quiet place, worked out in the form of minutes. Sometimes it is necessary for the minute-taker to listen to the sound recording of the meeting, but the fastest way to produce the minutes is by working on the basis of one's own, trustworthy and clearly written notes.
Standards for professional minutes and minute-takers
Professional minutes must be:
- concise but basically complete;
- neutral, well-balanced and objective;
- ready in time before the next meeting;
- clearly structured;
- orthographically and grammatically faultless;
Looking at the function that minutes have in the meeting process, these are, put in their order of importance, the standards professional minutes have to meet.
In their aim at completeness, equilibrium and neutrality minutes and concise reports differ from the reporting done by journalists. Journalism may answer to high standards of truthfulness and objectivity, but is always partial in its reporting, as it is the result of a selection of elements that are deemed relevant by the journalist in question.
The professional minute-taker has the following profile:
- an adequate educational background;
- an adequate mastery of the spoken and written language;
- being able to take notes rapidly;
- being able to distinguish matters of first importance;
- knowledge of the sphere of action of the body that is assembled;
- knowledge of the relevant meeting procedures;
- being able to make the draft minutes within a fairly short time;
- trustworthy and ready to serve in the interest of the meeting;
- an objective attitude towards the persons present at the meeting and their opinions.
Looking at the role the minute-taker has to fulfil, producing the minutes, these are in order of their importance the qualifications a professional minute-taker has to meet. The educational background the professional minute-taker needs, depends upon the level of the sphere of action the meeting is covering. These levels range from an employees council or staff meeting to a cabinet meeting. The concise reporting of e.g. parliamentary committee meetings demands a broad general education, active reading of good newspapers and analytical insight.
However, unlike the journalist, who in his reporting is focused on the aspects he deems interesting for his readers, the minute-taker has to produce minutes or a concise report that, as to the essentials, is complete. His selection is aimed at what is relevant for the meeting and for dealing with the items on the agenda. Unlike the journalist, who is rather assertive and selective in gathering and presenting his news, the minute-taker is receptive and aims at a well-balanced phrasing of the input of speakers and at compliance with the wishes of the chairman regarding the composition of the minutes.