Search form

Section 3. Capturing What People Say: Tips for Recording a Meeting

Learn how to take a lot of individual comments, capture them, and build on them, which will help your group clarify its thinking, and make better decisions.


  • Why should you record a meeting?

  • Options for recording a meeting

  • When should you record a meeting?

  • Who should record the meeting?

  • How do you record a meeting?

  • Following up: What to do with what you have recorded

Have you ever left a meeting saying to yourself, "Wow, that was a great meeting! I heard some excellent ideas," only to find, a week later, that you have forgotten what those ideas were? Unfortunately, so did everyone else. Opportunity is lost, and the issues you met to take care of are left unfinished.

Solving problems is always a challenge, especially when a group is working together to puzzle out the best solution. Trying to remember all of the important points that have been mentioned during a lengthy meeting makes it even more difficult. So particularly when you are trying to work out all of those details, you will want to record, and later review, what is said at your meeting.

That's what this section will focus on--making records of meetings that will help your group get better at solving problems. We will begin by discussing the benefits of recording a meeting. Then, we'll talk about different ways to record, and which might be best for your particular circumstances. We'll continue with how to choose the best person to record. Then, we'll discuss the "how-tos" of recording a problem-solving meeting, including the tools you will need; how to work with the group; what to record; how to record effectively; and finally, what to do with what you have recorded.

Why should the meeting be recorded?

No matter how you decide to record your meeting (and we'll discuss the different possibilities below), there are a lot of advantages to recording in general. They include:

  • Recording a meeting lets people know that they've been listened to and really heard.
  • It provides a historical record that can be used at future meetings for verification of decisions, and as a reminder of past events and actions.
  • It can provide important information to people who were not invited to or able to attend the meeting.
  • It helps keep everyone on track. If everything is written down, the group is more likely to stick to the agenda, or to pull itself back onto it. For example, it's quite easy to note that things are off track if the recorder is no longer writing things down, or if he is writing about things unrelated to the day's agenda.

And for visible recording, where the eye can see what's happening, there are these added advantages:

  • It provides a visible running record--everyone can see what has happened, and what is happening, as you go along.
  • When you are involved in brainstorming, having ideas in front of everyone often help people come up with even more good ideas.
  • It can increase people's attention to, and interest in, the meeting.
  • People are less likely to repeat themselves if they can see their words right in front of them--and everyone else--in black and white. They might also think more carefully before they speak!

Warning: This last advantage can be a double-edged sword. Some people may be less likely to speak candidly if they know that what they say is going to be recorded. If members of the group you are working with don't know each other well, or are uncomfortable with each other in any way, you might think about doing some icebreakers before the meeting starts, to make everyone more comfortable.

People may also be less likely to speak if they know their remarks will be attributed to them. It's one thing to make an offhand comment, quite another if that comment shows up as a quote in the local newspaper.

In short, be sure everyone knows in advance--and agrees upon--the intended use of the material that is recorded. Is it just for the future use of committee members? Or will it be made public? In order for everyone to be at ease, this should be decided on collectively at the outset.

Options for recording a meeting

Before going further, let's look at the different types of recording most readily available. You can:

  • Decide not to record the meeting at all
  • Take written notes and minutes
  • Record key points visibly, such as on newsprint or a chalkboard
  • Record audio and/ or video

Although these approaches overlap, and more than one can be used at a time, this section will focus primarily on visible recording--that is, writing so everyone can see, such as on butcher paper or newsprint in front of the group.

We'd be remiss, however, if we didn't mention some additional, more technologically -oriented variations of those options listed above.

They include:

  • Recording the meeting directly over a laptop, and distributing printed written minutes at periodic intervals
  • Phone conferences (conference calls) with telephone recording
  • Speak-and-type arrangements, where one's voice goes directly into print

When should you record a meeting?

When might each of the options mentioned above be preferable? The basic decisions around recording depend upon the context of the meeting. However, here are some conditions that favor each of the first four options above:

Conditions when recording is less necessary:

  • The meeting is short
  • The meeting is casual and informal
  • Trust among the members is high
  • The group meets very frequently, and will meet again shortly
  • The group's agenda is primarily or largely social
  • No significant decisions will be made
  • No significant actions will be taken

Conditions favoring written notes or minutes:

  • When the meeting is a regular or routine meeting of a group, committee, or board, with no major decisions or actions on the agenda

Conditions favoring visible recording:

  • When the group is engaging in problem-solving
  • When the group is engaging in decision-making
  • When there are multiple options for solution or decision
  • When it is desirable to generate those multiple options, and to put them all before the group
  • When the problem or discussion topic is new or unfamiliar to the group
  • When the topic is complex
  • When the topic is controversial
  • When stakes are high; when the decision to be made is important
  • When the group members do not know each other well
  • When there is low trust among the members, and/or a history of conflict

Conditions favoring audio recording:

  • When no skilled recorder is available
  • When the discussion moves faster than a recorder can keep up
  • When the terminology used in group discussion is technical or complex
  • When it is important to capture the exact language used
  • When it is important to listen to vocal tone, as well as verbal content
  • When other group members, who will be making decisions on the topic, cannot be physically present at the meeting

Finding the best person for the job

So, whom should you choose to record the meeting? (Again, we're talking about visible recording here.) There really is an art to it (think of all of the shorthand secretaries learn!), so usually it's not a good idea to simply designate a recorder. Some qualities to look for when choosing a recorder include:

  • Experience doing recording
  • Knowledge of your group's affairs
  • Clear handwriting
  • The ability to work well with the facilitator

Should the facilitator be the recorder? The short answer is, it depends. Especially for a meeting where you are trying to solve a particularly difficult problem, it's a good idea not to combine the roles. That way, the facilitator can concentrate on what she does best, and leave recording for a second person.

However, in the following conditions, the two roles may merge quite nicely:

  • The material is relatively simple
  • The discussion moves slowly enough that the facilitator has time to encourage it, suggest things, and write it all down
  • There is no skilled recorder available to do the job
  • Regardless of whether the recorder is pulling "double duty" as the facilitator or not, he or she will want to do the ensuing steps to get the job done

How to record meetings effectively

To effectively record the meeting, the recorder should pay attention to four things:

  • Having the proper tools
  • Working effectively with the group
  • Deciding what to record
  • How to record most effectively

Having the proper tools

In the last section of this chapter, on running effective meetings, we talked about the importance of logistics: making sure you have the room key; that there is water for the coffee pot, and there are napkins for the brownies; that there are comfortable chairs to sit in and tables to write on that don't wiggle.

As a recorder, it's even more important to have the proper tools. Generally, these will include the following things:

  • Markers. Use several different colors, and be sure they are water-based --they won't bleed through the paper.
  • Butcher paper (or newsprint) and tape. Use newsprint or newsprint-size post-it easel pad sheets for recording notes. 
  • A whiteboard and eraser can be used as an alternative to paper and pens. With erasers, your material is easier to correct. A disadvantage, however, is that your comments aren't permanent. So make sure you document the notes before they're gone. 
  • An easel. If the group does a lot of meetings, it's a good idea to own a portable easel. It's also possible to have more than one of them going simultaneously. If you don't have an easel, you can hang the pages on the walls in a pinch.

Tip: Try keeping all of these together in a special box or tote bag, clearly marked as "Recorder's Tools," so you don't forget anything in your haste at the last minute.

  • Proper set-up of the room. This is not exactly a tool, but the importance of arranging the room thoughtfully can't be overemphasized. What is being recorded should be clearly visible to the whole group. No one should have to crane their neck or break their back trying to see what's going on. You might try testing out your writing, too, to make sure you can see it (and read it!) from the most distant chair.

Working effectively with the group

If two different people are serving as the facilitator and recorder, the recorder will have somewhat less verbal contact with the group than will the facilitator. That doesn't mean, however, that the interaction between the recorder and the group isn't important. The chemistry between participants and the recorder can have a real impact on how the meeting proceeds, and how effective it is.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • The importance of listening. The recorder has to be almost painfully in the "here and now." The role of the recorder may be quiet, but it is anything but passive. He needs to listen hard at all times, to make sure quiet comments don't go unheard, and that points briefly made don't go unnoticed.
  • Remain neutral. Generally, the recorder doesn't interject his opinions into the conversation. Like the facilitator, he remains "sponge-like," soaking up the opinions of those around him.
  • Asks the group to repeat or slow down, as necessary. Don't be shy here. If the group is going too fast to write everything down, or you are unclear about what someone has said, it's perfectly all right for the recorder to step in, and say, "Excuse me. I didn't quite catch that." Or, you can say what you think you heard, and ask, "Is that right?" If the recorder didn't understand something, or didn't have time to write everything down, it's a good bet other members of the group are a few steps behind as well.
  • Accept corrections graciously. The recorder may have heard something wrong, or made a spelling mistake that someone feels compelled to point out. He shouldn't lose his cool. The recorder can simply thank the person and go on; no one is perfect, but being perfectly poised when corrected is certainly impressive, and will contribute to a smooth meeting.
  • Work with the facilitator. From Abbott and Costello to Rodgers and Hammerstein, the value of teamwork is clear. The facilitator and recorder working in tandem can result in a much better meeting.

Example: The facilitator can repeat or check the speaker's statement before the recorder writes it down. Not only does that clarify what has been said for the recorder; the rest of the audience is now sure to have heard the statement as well.

Deciding what to record

Now, we've come to the real "meat" of recording. The recorder is up there in front of the group, marker in hand, and everyone's talking. What is important to write down, and what isn't?

In general, the recorder will write down what is often called the "group memory." The "group memory" is nothing more than a fancy term for what's being said. If you think about it, though, it's really quite apt. What the recorder writes will be most of what is remembered from this meeting. So it's up to him, with the group's help, to decide what's important.

And just what is that? Well, it depends on the meeting, but can often include:

  • Questions
  • Answers
  • Concerns
  • Feedback
  • Ideas from brainstorming sessions
  • Decisions

How do you decide if a comment or question is important enough to write down? You may find some of the following guidelines helpful, or you might make up some of your own before the meeting begins.

Record a comment if:

  • It takes a position, with reasons, on an agenda item before the group
  • It is a specific suggestion made by a group member
  • It is stated several times, and/or with obvious emotion
  • The speaker directly requests that a point get written down, "for the record"
  • It introduces a new idea, or gives new information, not previously stated
  • It relates to how money has been, is going to be, or should be spent
  • It's a decision made by the group

If in doubt, it's perfectly fine to ask something like, "Should I be writing that down?" or, "How should I be writing that down?" or, "How can I best capture that on paper?" The idea is to work with the group to help you decide what to record.

How to record most effectively

The following tips can help make the job easier and the work more clear. If you are the recorder:

  • Don't try to write every word; your hand will just cramp, and you'll never keep up. Paraphrase what's been said. If you have changed the speaker's words considerably, check to be sure you have captured the idea correctly.
  • Use high-energy words, such as active verbs and nouns. Adjectives can sometimes be accurately and more swiftly indicated by underlining, color, etc.
  • Write large, legibly, and fast. This isn't the time to worry about saving paper; comprehension should be most important.
  • Don't worry about spelling. You'll still get the point across.
  • Leave out words like "the" and "a"
  • Label and number your sheets. This will help make your job a lot easier if you have a lot of pages to condense at the end of the meeting!
  • Use color, symbols, and underlining to highlight your points. Check all of the colors you are going to use before the meeting, to decide which are most legible.
  • Separate thoughts and topics with symbols, such as stars. Don't number different thoughts on the same topic, though, as numbers may establish a priority, or suggest that one idea is better than another. Save the use of numbers for larger things, such as agenda items, new topics, or, as mentioned above, for ordering pages.

Following up: What to do with what you have recorded

After the meeting is over and the crumbs swept up, then, there will probably be quite a few oversized pieces of paper. What to do with them?

Generally speaking, you, or someone else, will want to type up what has been written for your files, and possibly distribute them to all meeting participants. Don't forget, here, to write down what has been decided, as well as future actions of all participants. (e.g., Chris agreed to ask downtown business owners to invite area youth to spend a day learning what it means to run a company, and will tell us the results at the next meeting).

These minutes are an important part of the recording process, and shouldn't be forgotten. Generally, they should follow and parallel the items on the meeting agenda, providing there is one.

These minutes will usually include:

  • The name of the group that is meeting
  • The date
  • The time and place
  • The names of those present (unless it's a very large meeting)
  • The key points made for each agenda item
  • Specific decisions that were made. These might be underlined, or highlighted in another way, for easier reference.
  • In more formal meetings, the minutes also note any motions made, with the name of the mover, and the results of any votes taken on those motions.

The minutes then get distributed to those present at the meeting, together with an agenda for the next meeting, as well as other relevant materials. Ideally, this should be accomplished sufficiently in advance of the next meeting (commonly, within one to two weeks) so that members can review the minutes and, more importantly, get ready for that meeting. Remember that many more formal meetings start with review and approval of the previous meeting's minutes; so for that reason alone, it's not good practice to hand out the minutes right at the next meeting.

After the minutes are distributed and approved, they should be filed, but not filed -and-forgotten. They are there to be referred to and used. They are part of your organization's "group memory." More than that, at some point some outside group--funders, lawyers, auditors, interested outsiders--may wish to see them. So it's to your advantage to keep them readily available, up-to-date, and in good shape.

In general, the preparation and timely distribution of accurate minutes can add professionalism to your group, provide a historical record, serve as a source for fact-checking, increase the fairness of its proceedings, and perhaps also lead to better decisions, as well as more effective follow-up to those decisions.

So, the group should adopt its own policy regarding minutes, and stick to it. Not every group needs detailed minutes, and not every meeting may need minutes at all. But the points mentioned above here can be adapted to one's own situation.

And again, it's important that action be taken on the basis of the notes and decisions made. Handing out such minutes serves as a not-so-subtle reminder for group members to follow through on what they agreed to do. Much of the point of recording in the first place is to help ensure that clearer and better decisions do get made and implemented. In the end, that's probably the best sign of all that your meeting was effective.

In Summary

Recording is one of the most important tasks to be done at a meeting. In doing so, you take a lot of individual comments, capture them, and build on them. This will help your group clarify its thinking, and make better decisions. And by having a clear, complete record of the meeting's events, you can be sure that these decisions won't just be forgotten when you turn out the lights and lock the door.

Jenette Nagy
Bill Berkowitz

Print Resources

Burleson, C. (1990). Effective meetings: The complete guide. New York, NY: John Wiley.

Dashiell, K. (1990). Managing meetings for collaboration and consensus. Honolulu, HI: Neighborhood Justice Center of Honolulu, Inc.

Doyle, M. & Straus, D. (1976). How to make meetings work: The new interaction method. New York, NY: Wyden Books.

Interaction Associates, Inc. (1987). Facilitator institute. San Francisco, CA: Author.

Morrison, E. (1994). Leadership skills: Developing volunteers for organizational success. Tucson, AZ: Fisher Books.

Quinlivan, D., & Renner, P. (1994). In search of solutions: 60 ways to guide your problem-solving group. San Diego, CA: Pfieffer and Company.